Many pet parents have experienced the crushing feeling of losing a pet, and as our little companions age, we brace ourselves for the day we have to say goodbye. But what about the other pets in the household—those who have lost their best tug-of-war partners or cuddle buddies? Dog depression and cat depression are real feelings that we need to know how to handle and understand. We can’t assume that animals are so resilient that they won’t be affected by, or will only be mildly affected by, the passing of another family pet. Grieving is a legitimate dog behavior, and yes, even a real cat behavior. So, what do we do to ease dog depression and cat depression and help our pets work through the grief?
Notice the Signs of Grieving
Before we even think about helping, we need to understand how pets express grief and be on the lookout for specific dog behaviors and cat behaviors. The signs look like what we might call cat depression or dog depression.
“Pet grief can be seen in lack of interest or enthusiasm for the usual activities, like throwing the ball or squeaky toy, or going for walks with a sedate gait,” notes Sally Morgan, a holistic physical therapist for pets and people, and the developer of craniosacral therapy for pets. “They mope around the house, or may seek more time next to you for pats and affection and reassurance when a pet or person has passed.”
Jme Thomas, Executive Director of Motley Zoo Animal Rescue in Redmond, Washington, adds that your animal might start vocalizing when they hadn’t before, or they might not want to get out of bed or do the things they used to enjoy.
Don’t Be Afraid to Consult a Vet
Some cat behaviors and dog behaviors might look like grief, but could be caused by something else. Thomas advises that you should err on the side of caution, and take your pet to the vet if you notice changes in behavior, even if you think it’s in response to grief. “It really could be something else, and just a coincidence that it has happened at the same time as your family’s loss.”
This isn’t to say that you should credit any change to something medical, but to not rule out any possibility. If your pet is refusing to eat, and it goes on for days, says Morgan, it’s time to consult a vet. She recommends seeing a holistic vet for acupuncture to help them recover from loss.
Help Them Get Closure
Having an open casket funeral allows people to say their final goodbyes, and the same principle is true for pets. Allowing other pets to see the deceased pet can help provide closure. Morgan believes that even though animals know when their friend has passed away, they should be allowed to see the body.
“I have seen many, many animals spend time with the body of a departed loved one, and I think that it’s important for them. Wolves will sit and howl around a departed pack member if they are in a safe place, as do many other animals. If a person can bear it, I think it is kind to your remaining pet to see the body of the departed and spend time if he chooses to with the body.”
She’s worked with many animals, providing hospice care, and has been amazed at how cats will keep vigil near an animal who is passing, and will quietly leave hours after they’ve passed. Many dogs, she notes, will sniff the body, then go hide in a safe spot or curl up next to their departed pal until the body becomes cold, and then quietly walk away. Thomas agrees that animals grieve and stand vigil over the bodies of their family members—their pack—and letting them do so has an impact.
She even did this with her own pack when her dog, Zelda, died unexpectedly. “Her best buddy, Meatball, who was experiencing the most severe signs of grief, really kept going back to try and figure out what happened.”
Stay Strong Through the Long-Haul
Give your pets time, and allow them to feel what they’re feeling. Dog depression and cat depression can be hard to watch, but don’t try to ignore your grief or your pet’s grief.
“Allowing yourselves to grieve is critical,” says Thomas. “Don’t rush anything, and just honor your feelings—and your pet’s.”
Morgan notes that she has seen animals grieve for weeks or even a few months. Just like us, our pets need time to work through their feelings of loss according to their own timeline. Of course, if your animal’s health is affected, be sure to consult your veterinarian.
Provide Stimulation and Return to Routines
Although everyone needs time to grieve, you can help relieve cat depression and dog depression by returning to the normal routines and spending quality time with your pets.
“Quieter games may be good for a while, but a return to routine is often the most comforting,” Thomas says. “My young corgi slept close to me as I cried at night missing my departed dog, but after a few days, I got a distinct impression he thought I should get over it and enjoy things in life again, like games of squeaky toss and long walks.”
We need to enjoy the time we still have with the pets that are here. They can find solace in getting back to the routine, and with interactive games and training. According to Thomas, bonding over exercise is priceless, but it’s also important to work out their mind.
“Ten to 15 minutes of training work where you ask them to sit, stay, wait, down and so on can tired them out more than 3 hours of fetch,” she says. “A tired doggy brain is a relaxed doggy brain. Dog puzzle games can help achieve this.”
Give Them Calming Relief
Morgan recommends trying essential oils and flower essences that are formulated for pets to help calm them so they can cope with loss. Nature’s Miracle Just For Cats Calming Spray uses herbal, flower and plant seed extracts plus essential oils to help soothe cat depression. NaturVet Quiet Moments Calming Aid Dog Soft Chews and Vet’s Best Comfort Calm Soft Chews have chamomile and L-tryptophan, ingredients that Thomas says can help ease anxiety. You might also find dog depression relief with the comforting design of a ThunderShirt, which can provide calming comfort in many situations.
Have Patience When Behaviors Change
Since her dog Zelda’s passing, Thomas has noticed her dogs behaving differently. With any disruption to the pack, whether it’s a human or animal that dies, you should expect that there might be some changes in dog behavior or cat behavior. In Thomas’s pack, one dog has become grumpy with her people and the other dogs. Her dog Meatball started having fits at night, waking up howling because Zelda wasn’t in her crate next to him. As a way to ease his stress, they’ve set up an exercise pen in the living room for him to sleep in. Try to understand your pet’s new needs, and if you’re having trouble, you can consult a pet behaviorist for help.
Carefully Consider Introducing a New Pet
The question of whether you should get another pet, or when, will come up sooner or later. Morgan says she would wait a few weeks out of respect for your pet’s grieving process, but also points out that bringing in a new animal is a great idea.
Thomas says it can work both ways—with a new pet being accepted well, or being a challenge to integrate into the household. “Some dogs with severe separation anxiety, for example, might need another animal to keep them company,” she says.
Morgan says that you might even bring the new pet in before your pet departs to keep them company before they go. It might depend on whether you already have other pets in the household. The best advice is to honor your feelings and those of your surviving pets. “Sometimes people foster instead of getting another pet, which we see a lot of, and this can be very therapeutic,” adds Thomas.
When you lose a pet or a human family member, whether unexpectedly or after a long-term illness, it’s heart-wrenching. You might not even know what you’re feeling, let alone be able to understand what your pets are going through. The best you can do is to follow the advice from the experts, and most importantly, have patience with yourself and your furry friends as you work through your grief together.
Nikki Naser, Pet Central Senior Editor
Instead of owning 30 cats, Nikki has an impressive collection of 30 cat-themed T-shirts, and just 4 pets—a ginger-haired senior cat, a senior Maine Coon, a middle-aged Choodle, and a young kitty who showed up one day on the back steps. A former Orlando resident, Nikki worked on several tourism publications before moving to South Beach. When she’s not stopping to take pics of community cats to post on Instagram, Nikki spends her time with the office pets at Chewy, writing for their Pet Central blog.