There are many arguments about whether or not animals have the emotional capacity to express grief. Research in evolutionary biology, cognitive biology and social neuroscience supports the view that many diverse animals have rich and deep emotional lives. People with companion animals or service animals will strongly argue that animals express numerous feelings such as fear, anger, shame, excitement, and grief. Historically, wild animals have been known to express grief by letting out a yelp, wandering aimlessly, and eventually reorganizing their pack.
The human animal bond is a complex social bond which is mutual, affectionate and thrives around a family system. Animals view you as a member of their pack. This bond provides safety and security for the family members and their pets and stabilizes everyone’s wellbeing.
When a family member, human or animal, is lost, becomes ill, or dies, it affects the whole family. Effectively supporting the grief process in the surviving pack members allows the pack to move forward.
Animals display grief in a manner similar to humans. Aspects of their personality may change for a period time.
The eating habits of the surviving animals may change. They may:
- Display a loss of interest in eating.
- Have to adjust to a new eating schedule.
If the eating habits change in the surviving animals, add some of their favorite foods to their diet, or perhaps entice them with special treats. It may be ideal to leave the deceased pet’s beds, water, and food bowls around for a few days after the death. Eating habits may vary because the surviving pet is waiting or looking for the animal that is no longer present. Trust that this is part of the process. Changes in appetite should be temporary. However, if there is dramatic weight loss, consult your veterinarian.
The surviving animals may change their sleeping habits. They may:
- Sleep in unfamiliar places.
- Sleep where the deceased member used to sleep.
- Act lethargic.
- Nap more often.
Most animals sleep in pairs; if this routine is changed, they may sleep in different areas and become restless where they once slept peacefully. Things you can do to support the change in sleeping habits is to make time for more exercise, walk, hike, and play more often. When there is an opportunity to go for a drive, be spontaneous. Creating new memories will help heal the grief and allow the pack to naturally reorganize.
Much like humans, animals may become despondent. They may:
- Demonstrate searching behavior and look for the deceased.
- Become clingy.
- Show aggression.
Engage the surviving animals in activity. This may be a time of introducing a new leadership. Be sure to use positive reinforcements and gentleness to encourage these changing roles. Keep a regular schedule to best support the grief of the animals that express anxiety. Spend extra time together; sometimes allowing our pets to take care of us is just what they need as well. They will get through their grief in their own time in their own unique way.
Comforting grief in pets is similar to comforting grief in humans. Various expressions of grief will fluctuate from day to day, and sometimes hour by hour. Remember, grief is not black or white. Grief can be gray. The important thing is to be patient with your animal and understand that although grief can feel like a roller coaster ride in the beginning, eventually the ride will smooth out.