If you’ve ever wondered how animals experience emotions in comparison to humans, the answer hits quite close to home. Grief is a particularly strong example of this. Many people assume that grief is reserved only for human beings, but animals experience it too.
You may have seen videos on social media showing a dog returning to his late owner’s headstone, howling for their lost animal friend or sibling, or even just acting sad and lethargic. These are examples of animals dealing with grief.
In this article, we will take an in-depth look at exactly how animals experience grief. We’ll explore the situations that would cause them to grieve, signs of grieving, and ways you can actually help your animal through their grief.
We will also talk about who else might be able to help them through it, as well as what to do when their grief seems prolonged. We also provide resources that can help you with learning more about your pet’s experience of grief.
There are several situations in which an animal may show signs of grieving. This is not a complete list; however it does show that animals do in fact experience emotion.
An animal may experience grief as a result of the loss of a caregiver or owner, which can be extremely tough on a pet. Animals have been shown to bond deeply with their human counterparts, and there are many stories and examples of animals mourning them long after they have passed on.
They may also experience grief because of the passing of another pet in the family. Death affects animals just like it affects humans, and other pets they live with will likely have left a deep impact on their existence. This is true whether the other pet was a biological sibling to them, or an adopted one.
If someone in the household is also grieving due to the loss of a person or animal, the surviving animal will likely absorb some of that grief as well.
According to Dr. Marc Bekoff as quoted in AKC.org, dogs can certainly pick up on our emotions. “’Dogs pick up on our mood, odors, facial expressions, and even read our postures’ says Dr. Bekoff. ‘They read differences in us and can feed off our own feelings, including sadness and grief.’”
An animal could also feel grief due to the separation from birth mother. Very young animals who are torn from their mothers too soon will likely struggle.
For example, a puppy may cry every night for weeks or even months dealing with the premature separation from their moms. Even though no one has died, this is still a form of grief and should be treated with similar care. They might also struggle in the same way after the loss or separation from their offspring or sibling.
Similarly, the loss of another pet in the family will likely be hard on them as well. Take a look at this article, “Preparing for the Loss of a Pet,” which talks about ways you can help a fellow pet prepare for the death of their adopted sibling.
A change in environment such as a move or the divorce of their caregivers are more reasons likely to cause an animal to experience grief. This can also result from the long-term travel of one or both of the animal’s caregivers.
To the surprise of many pet owners, an animal may also experience grief from just a change in their routine. A new family member being born or adopted, whether human or a pet, could be an example of this.
This could also happen following a move, where their whole environment is different. Really any upheaval of their regular routine can throw off their sense of harmony and normalcy, which can cause grief or depression in a pet.
What many people don’t realize is that an animal’s depression, or what appears to be grief, can come from another health issue they are suffering from. It may not always stem from any kind of loss, which is why it’s important to bring them to the vet to have them checked out. It’s always best if their suffering can be fixed from the root of the problem.
It can be difficult to tell when your pet is dealing with grief, since some other ailments can cause similar symptoms to those resulting from a loss of companion. However, the more of the below that your pet has been displaying, the more likely they are to be grieving.
To be sure, it’s never a bad idea to call or make an appointment with their vet. If the animal is grieving, you might notice that they have a lack of appetite, seem depressed or listless, or that they are sleeping more than usual. You might also find that they are hiding or are acting out.
Other behavioral differences you might see in your pet are changes in normal daily behavior such as aggression or destructive behavior, clinginess, and eliminating where they shouldn’t be. They might also be acting like they are waiting for their caregiver to return.
They may also vocalize in unusual ways for the one they’ve lost. They could be crying, howling, whimpering, etc. You might also notice your pet licking their paws or grooming themselves much more than usual. This is a form of self-soothing.
They may take waiting around for whoever they are grieving a step further and start actually searching for the missing animal or person within the home. They likely would be looking for them in places they know they would normally frequent. They may also sleep in a different spot, such as hiding behind a couch or other furniture.
Their personality might change as well—they may struggle to know what their role in the household is now that their fellow animal friend is gone.
It’s important to know some specific ways in which you can make the grieving process your pet is experiencing as easy as possible. There are certain things you do to support them, and even though it’s true that spending time with them and making sure they aren’t spending too much time in isolation is vital, there are also other ways you can be there for them—even when you can’t physically be with them all the time.
Helping pets during grief can be tough. It can be awful to watch an animal grieve, and it might seem like you are powerless to ease their pain. However, there are things you can do to try and help them through this difficult time.
You can be more affectionate and attentive with them, talk to them, and even take them to work with you if you can. This can help keep them from being too isolated throughout their grief. You might also consider letting them sleep next to you if they normally aren’t allowed.
You can also try to spend extra time with them doing things they love, such as going for walks, playing with their favorite toy with them, or taking them to the dog park. This can help them to meet new friends and distract them from the loss or void that they are feeling.
You could also go on a hike with them, since getting outside and being in nature would do good for everyone involved. The beach is another great idea, too. If these outings are too difficult, then simply taking them for a ride in the car would help to perk them up as well.
When you do need to leave them behind, you might want to invest in a device where you can communicate with them via two-way audio. Hearing your voice throughout the day—and also being able to hear any noises of distress they might be making—can help put both your minds at ease. They will likely take comfort in hearing a familiar voice when they would otherwise be sitting in silence.
It can also help to be sure that they have plenty of entertainment to keep them busy at home. You could purchase a treat dispensing toy, which might give them little highlights in their day, while also helping them feel less bored and lonely.
You might also consider getting an interactive toy to help keep them distracted and engaged. Another great idea is having a radio on or keeping the TV on a low volume in order to fill the house with sounds that are soothing to them.
Similarly, you could leave your Alexa device playing calming music through a music app which it can stay connected to throughout the day.
Here are a few other ideas of ways that you can help a grieving pet.
There are additional things you can do to help your animal cope with their grief. Firstly, it’s never a bad idea to talk with your vet for suggestions on things you could try. Something else that can make a big difference—and something your vet may also suggest—is ensuring that they’re getting the right nutrition. Just like with humans, what your pet eats can greatly impact their emotional wellbeing, too.
You can also do your own research online to find out which foods might best benefit your pet’s specific breed. Check out some of the below resources you can check in order to learn more about the best nutrition plan for your animal.
It can also be very helpful simply giving your animal the time they need to grieve. It’s best to not rush to replace a lost pet, since that can often cause further distress for the living pet. Too much change all at once can be quite overwhelming for them.
Eventually, it may feel like the right time to get another animal friend for your pet. Try to assess the ambiance of the home with your best judgment to know when the time might be right to adopt again.
On the other hand, distractions can actually be helpful in some circumstances. If they have a lot more free time now that the person or animal who has left their life is gone, then filling that extra time with positive social experiences can somewhat cover up the void they may be feeling. If you change the routine, it will help them feel the absence of the deceased person or deceased animal less.
According to Blue Cross, pheromones are an option you should discuss with your vet. They will explain the benefits of buying scented pheromones, also known as Dog Appeasing Pheromones such as ADAPTIL, which act as a diffuser. There is a different option for cats as well which can help their grieving symptoms.
The key is to get them outside the house for these social interactions. Invading what would be their comfortable “safe space” with a new animal too soon can be more stressful than positive. It’s best to keep their home routine familiar, while filling in the extra time with outings whenever you can. Try to keep a healthy balance of consistency and new things for at least the first few weeks of their grieving.
When an animal is dealing with symptoms of grief, it’s best to keep their routine as normal as possible. For instance, try to keep meal times the same. Make sure they’re eating, drinking, and eliminating as usual. This is important in order to make sure they are suffering another illness. Monitoring their habits is much easier when there are no other variables that have changed lately.
If possible, allow the animal to be with the deceased person or deceased animal for a short bit to “register” the death. It may help them to gain an understanding of what has happened, and allow them to not continue constantly wondering where their caregiver or animal friend went.
Another way to try to allow them “visits” could be after the death. If it is a fellow pet who has died, and you are having them cremated, you could have their ashes placed in a beautiful, engravable pet cremation urn meant for cats and dogs.
For example, this Good Day Sunshine pet cremation urn is the perfect way to honor the animal that has died. It also can serve as a visiting spot for the surviving pet to spend time with them.
You could strategically place in a spot where the deceased pet used to frequent, such as their favorite sunbathing spot, where they used to sleep each night, or anywhere else that’s meaningful.
You could also opt to add a special pendant keepsake to your pet’s collar, which symbolizes the lost pet. One great pendant choice is this “In my heart” cremation jewelry pendant which features a little paw print that’s been engraved. You could also get them something like this Love Pawprint keepsake pendant, too.
Since it is cremation jewelry, you could put some of the deceased pet’s ashes inside it. Alternatively, you could put some of the animal’s fur into the pendant instead.
This may even give your surviving pet a sense of comfort for a while, since they might be able to smell their loved one’s fur nearby.
There are a few important takeaways for helping your pet through the symptoms of grief they are experiencing. Firstly, it’s very helpful to try keeping your dog’s routine as close to normal as possible. Normalcy can help them cope with the loss a little better than if they are introduced to too much change all at once.
If a fellow pet has died, getting a new pet can be a positive thing for the grieving animal. Just make sure the timing feels right and that you aren’t doing this too soon. Make sure to introduce them to each other carefully, like having them meet outside the home at first.
It can be hard to know how to handle behavioral issues that may pop up after a pet’s housemate or owner has passed on. You might struggle with knowing when to tell them off for bad behavior, or whether you should at all. According to Blue Cross, it’s important that you do let them know when what they are doing isn’t okay.
“Praise your dog for calm behavior and ignore the behavior that it’s best not to encourage. It’s utterly heartbreaking to see your dog waiting hopefully for a family member who you know is not going to return, but try not to fuss your dog while they wait as you will encourage them to continue waiting. Instead, either leave your pet be or encourage them away from their waiting spot to come and play with you instead,” the organization explains.
From family to friends to even other animals, there are many options when it comes to helping your pet with their grief.
It can be tough to always be with your pet, but you can certainly try to ask for help from others in your life. Specifically, having people check in on your animal that they know well can also create an added sense of comfort and familiarity for them.
For example, close friends or family that the animal knows well can come and sit with them if you need to be gone from the home for an extended period of time.
If friends or family can help each other through their grief, they can surely help provide support for grieving pets of their loved ones. That extra care and support from those around them can make all the difference. (See also: “How to Help Senior Citizens Survive the Loss of a Pet”.)
You can also invite over children from your family, or maybe the kids from your neighborhood who your pet knows well. They can come and play fetch in the yard, brush them, or just cuddle and love on them.
They could also blow bubbles for them to chase around. The animal will appreciate all the extra love and attention, which will support them through their grieving process.
Another good way to alleviate the animal’s loss is to bring them around close friends or family members who have an animal that your pet knows and enjoys being around. They can come over or meet up with you for a play date.
You could also arrange a meeting with some new animal friends they have met on the walks you take them on. If there is a community of pets and pet owners in your area, utilize that for help supporting your pet.
If you don’t have a lot of connections with other pet owners, that’s okay—there are definitely other options. You can always use apps such as Meetup in order to search for groups in your area. Community apps like Meetup have groups for tons of different hobbies and lifestyles, so you won’t struggle to find other fellow pet owners.
If your pet is a dog, you can also look into using some of the apps out there which help you find the best dog-friendly spots you can take them to. This is a great way to raise your chances of meeting some other pet owners on your outing, and that your dog will be sure to get some playtime in.
If your animal simply isn’t getting better or seeming to progress through their grief, there are some steps you should take. Firstly, make a call to speak with your vet.
They may want you to bring them in for an appointment so they can check them out in person. At the appointment, they will have a thorough assessment so they can make sure the animal isn’t dealing with some other unknown health issue.
They will also be able to prescribe medications if your pet is experiencing depression or anxiety symptoms. Such medicines can help your beloved animal to feel like themselves again. You can also check with a pet psychologist or behaviorist.
They might be able to help determine what’s going on with them as well, narrowing down any other potential causes for their change in behavior.
There is definitely lots of information out there with which you can learn more about animal grief. Marc Bekoff is one notable figure who has specialized in this kind of research. You can read his book, Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do, to hear about his thoughts and findings.
He also has quite a few articles he has written for Psychology Today on animals and the way they process emotions. Check out his PT page, where you can see a collection of all relevant works.
There are some other great resources on animal grief, including articles and online books, such as:
Talking to your pet’s vet is one of the best things you can do since you will get personalized care for your pet specifically. Each animal is unique, and therefore deserves treatment specific to them and their needs at this tough time.
If you don’t have a vet right now, or you’d prefer to stay home, you can always find the information you need from the internet. You can also ask a friend who lives locally, and they can recommend the vet they prefer to use.
There are plenty of online vets that you can chat with in order to find out more about your animal and how they are dealing with their grief. If you prefer to meet with your pet’s veterinarian in person, you can search online for offices near you, or you could also resort to Google to see which vets are located near you. Narrow down your search by the quality of ratings, and read the reviews to decide on which vet you’d like to try out.
Below, we have listed a few resources that can help you out either way you decide to go.
Online live vet chats:
Finding a vet near you:
Animals grieve in their own way, and the way in which they experience grief can vary from one pet to another. Nevertheless, there are some common and consistent signs that can be seen. “In many cases, they behave the way grieving humans do, according to Marc Bekoff, a professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado at Boulder,” Caroline Bologna explains in this Huffington Post article.
For example, they might eat less or stop eating altogether, be less playful, and generally seem sad and have much less energy.
According to a Huffington Post article by Caroline Bologna on things to know about animal grief, they certainly do mourn loss. “In addition to cats and dogs, people have observed grief in other common pets like rabbits, horses and birds,” Bologna says.
There are plenty of animals that mourn their dead. We used to only have anecdotal evidence of pet grief—stories we would read about online that portrayed the ongoing devotion and loyalty of animals to their deceased owners—but now there is scientific evidence as well.
It seems impossible to completely rule out that animals feel heartbreak—especially with all the stories and scientific evidence that has been found portraying their capacity for grief. For example, two popular stories from different corners or the world show evidence of this. Bobby, a Skye Terrier, lived at the grave of his deceased owner for 14 years. Visitors to the gravesite knew and loved Bobby, and people took turns feeding and caring for him.
The other famous story is of Hachiko, the Akita from Japan, who ventured to the train station awaiting his owner for around 10 years. Apparently, this was where he always met his owner before he had died.
Animals certainly grieve for other animals. There are examples of this happening in many different species. For example, elephants will not only grieve their dead, but they are also known to have a long-lasting memory of the deceased. Giraffes also have shown patterns of this.
“They’ve identified mourninglike behaviors not just in cetaceans, but in elephants, giraffes, chimpanzees and other primates and, possibly, turtles, bison and birds,” says Barry Yeoman in his piece, “When Animals Grieve” on The National Wildlife Federation.
Animals may not fully understand the concept of death in the ways that we do, but they are often affected by death nonetheless. Let’s take dogs, for example. According to this Psychology Today article by Marc Bekoff, Ph.D., the author of Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do. “The surviving dog might not really ‘know’ that his or her buddy died, but their behavior changes.”
In other words, an animal may not completely understand that their loved one has died, but they might simply know that that person or animal friend is not around anymore. However, it’s important to note that in cases where it is possible, an understanding can be more likely for them if they are shown the body of the deceased.
Like people, animals may grieve for varied lengths of time. The average grieving time for animals tends to be a month-long. If they are not returning back to a sense of normalcy after another month or so, be sure to have a vet take a look at them.
If your pet doesn’t seem to be getting better, and their symptoms are prolonged, you might want to check with their vet. They can figure out whether or not your grieving pet symptoms are the result of another health issue.
Animals actually grieve quite similarly to humans. They can experience a loss of appetite, inability to sleep, sadness, lethargy, and more. Alternatively, they could exhibit the exact opposite of these behaviors.
They could sleep much more than usual, eat too much, show behavioral issues and have accidents in the house, etc. Just like us, they could display a range of different reactions because like people, every animal is unique.
When you have a sad pet, you should try either:
You might also try a combination of all of the above as you see fit. Pay attention to what seems to be helping, and keep monitoring their behavior.
Distracting your pet is a great way to try and alleviate their sadness. You can do this by taking them outside for morning walks or drives—getting outside of the house is always good for the mental health.
Fresh air, nature, and sunshine can do wonders. You could also bring treats along with you, and offer them to your pet a little more often than usual for the next few weeks.
Some more ways to distract your pet could be to simply make sure you spend more time with them, show them love, and try to keep them engaged by using treats to train them on new tricks if they are up for it.
A new toy or a new friend can be a great distraction, too. Something new and exciting is always welcome to a household pet.
In general, trying to give your animal new experiences would help distract them the most. Take them to a new spot they’ve never seen, such as a hike they can handle, a waterfall, a beach, or a park. Anything involving exercise would be the most ideal. This can open them up to what else is out there besides whomever or whatever it is they have lost.
The general advice on adopting a new pet to fill the void is that it’s best not to do it too soon. A sudden change of dynamic like that after already having lost someone can cause further upset and confusion within the home. However, filling your house with another loving animal can certainly ease both yours and your pet’s pain when the time feels right.
Try to gauge how your pet seems to interact with other animals they spend time with or see in passing. If they seem quite uplifting after interacting with others, then it might be time to introduce a new friend into the home again.
Your pet may very well seem totally unaffected by the passing of the other animal. This is just as normal as if they were to experience grief. According to Blue Cross’s article on “How to Help a Grieving Dog,” they may show no signs of dealing with grief or sadness at all, in fact. “Dogs may show no signs at all when another pet in the home passes away. If there was no particular bond between the deceased pet and the surviving dog, you may find your dog appears unaffected by the loss.”
Just like people, there’s no way to determine how an animal will react or whether they will even grieve.
It’s not easy watching an animal you love grieve. Thankfully, there are ways you can help them through this tough time. The ways in which animals experience emotions are much more human-like than many people realize, and similarly, support for grieving pets can help them move through their grief just as it would for us.
Understanding how grief can affect an animal can help you recognize it in your pet. With the information you’ve learned in this article, we hope you feel better equipped to help your beloved pet through their grief.
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July 27, 2021 by Frances Kay