How to Help Surviving Pets Navigate Through Grief
A few weeks ago, one of my clients lost a beloved furry family member. It was a devastating time and it came about very suddenly. What was first assumed to be an upset tummy one day, was soon diagnosed as terminal and in-operable cancer, two days later.
The Sudden Loss was Shattering
The only indication that anything was wrong was a sudden onset of nausea and lethargy. Our once cuddly, lively, bubbly Ginger was gone just two days after the vet gave us the news of her illness. To say it took us by surprise would be an understatement, there was no time to prepare ourselves or to say goodbye. Our grieving process began once we knew that the prognosis was not good. However, her sister- pup Chloe’s grieving process only began when she realized that her dear best-friend would not be coming home.
What I have learned About How Pet’s Grieve
I have experienced the passing of many pets throughout my life. Pets that were family members and pets of clients, who became extended family members. With most things, practice makes things easier but when dealing with the loss of our darlings, the feeling never really gets any less difficult to handle. Grieving is a normal process for all social animals. Dogs, cats, elephants, dolphins, and humans, have all been observed to experience grief.
Over the past few weeks, I have gone down a bit of a rabbit hole to immerse myself in knowledge about how dogs and cats grieve. I wanted to be able to better support dear Chloe during those first few weeks, weeks in which she quite obviously was not feeling like herself. It was very sad to see her dealing with the pain of her loss. So in this post, I will share with you what I have learned, with the hopes that I may be able to help other families who might be going through something similar.
Here Are Some Signs That Your Pet May Need Help
It is unknown how pets come to terms with a loss, but it is common to notice changes in the surviving pet’s behavior such as a loss of appetite, searching around from room to room, having accidents in the house, laying/ sitting in unusual places, or even becoming destructive. It is important to take note of any changes and then establish a new routine so that the surviving pet(s) can be encouraged to focus on developing positive coping behaviors. Dogs and Cats are very perceptive of our feelings so when grieving it is important not to inadvertently reward negative behaviors by commiserating in their grief.
You will notice habits and rituals in your household will shift because there is a family member who is no longer present in the home. You may feel as though there is an empty space as you go through your normal routine. Things, like going to fill their bowl, or grab their leash, might catch you off guard. Your surviving pets might have similar habits that will seem strange when they cannot be fulfilled, and their hierarchy in the home may also experience a shift.
Establishing a new routine and consistently providing some structure to their day may help immensely. Try to keep up with regular walks and feed them around the same time every day.
During the first few days I noticed that Chloe (who usually loves her mid-day walk) didn’t seem very interested in leaving the house. What I did with her instead of walking was cheerfully engaging her a game of “Find it!” A game in which I would toss a tiny piece of treat down the sidewalk and tell her to “FIND IT!” in my most exciting and high pitched sounding voice could make.
The purpose of the game was to get her up and moving around outside and to utilizing our 30 min regular walk time to take her mind off just sitting and worrying about Ginger. Each day the game would get us further and further away from the house until I noticed that she was genuinely engaged in walking and sniffing and enjoying outside. The key was to just be with her and move at her pace, but not to give up.
Over the next couple weeks, I began to let her lead the way on our walks, instead of encouraging her to walk the same way that we used to walk with Ginger, this step has been very important. It has been wonderful to see Chloe learn and explore the neighborhood in a new way. She has regained the pep in her step and the glimmer in her eyes and I truly feel that she has gained her confidence back as she learns to navigate the world without her sister. We miss Ginger dearly, but we will carry with us her light and love forever.
If you are struggling with the loss of a pet, it might be a good idea to ask for help. There are counselors and trained professionals who know how to help you through this difficult time. You can find a Counselor or join a Support Group here. I am also always willing to lend an ear! You can send me a message here.