From the mourning rituals of elephants to a beloved dog who refuses to leave the grave of an owner, animal grief is palpable, complex, and still a bit of a mystery. Despite thousands of stories from pet owners who have witnessed pets grieve, the ability of animals to experience emotions is still widely debated.

To learn more about how pets grieve, The Pet Experts at Elmhurst Animal Care Center offers some compelling evidence and tips on how to help your pet move through the impact of loss.

The Emotions of Animals

Whether it’s steadfast empirical evidence or softer accounts of emotions in animals, it’s generally accepted that many species do feel emotions like joy, anger, jealousy, and grief. In the late 1800s, even Darwin proposed that other species could feel emotions like man, not as a matter of difference, but a matter of degree.

Because emotions are fundamentally tied to behavior, it would make sense that sentient animals, to some degree, feel emotions. This is further supported by the fact that base emotions are controlled by one of the oldest parts of the brain – the amygdala.

As for our own pets of different species, behaviorist and author Barbara King suggests that while some animals do show signs of grief, it’s inconclusive whether all pets grieve. According to King, some pets, even horses, may exhibit behaviors of grief, but not all. Much depends upon the species and the relationship of the individual to the deceased.

How do Pets Grieve?

Just like humans, the comprehension and expression of emotions vary significantly among animals. While one dog within a home may exhibit what appears to be sadness or grief, another may show no signs at all.

However, the following are some general characteristics of grief among cats and dogs:

  • Eating less/weight loss
  • Restlessness
  • Changes in sleeping habits
  • Sudden clinginess
  • Increased vocalization (howling, meowing, barking, etc.)
  • Disinterest in exercise or play
  • Attempts to look for the deceased, including pawing at doors and windows, attempts to get out of the house, etc.

Some pet owners also report that their pets just seem depressed or sullen, while others may appear disoriented.

Because grief in pets can resemble other problems, such as an illness, it’s important to have your pet examined. The team at Elmhurst can also assess any behavioral changes that may require additional support.

Helping Your Pet Through the Grieving Process

If your family has experienced the loss of a loved one or a beloved family pet, it’s important to remember this loss is felt by everyone – including other companion animals.

Pets also respond to our emotions. Therefore, tending to your own feelings of loss may also help your surviving pets. Consider the following ways to support pet family members through their grief:

  • Avoid leaving your pet(s) alone. You may wish to allow them to sleep near you or another family member.
  • If you’re away from home, consider asking a friend or other familiar person to stay with your pet.
  • Use positive distractions, such as new toys and activities, to encourage your pet to feel safe.
  • Maintain as much consistency in schedule/routine as possible.
  • Although it may be hard, try to maintain a positive response with your pet to help them feel secure.

Remember, grief is a process that requires time and patience. If your pet is struggling after a loss or if there are accompanying behavior changes, please contact our team. We’re always here for you and your pet during this difficult time.