When a family pet dies, people grieve. But the reverse is also the case: When you go, your dog, cat or rabbit may grieve over losing you. And when a pet dies, a surviving pet may take it worst of all.
The most evident manifestations of grief are a loss of appetite, social withdrawal or the frequent revisiting of places that were meaningful, says Barbara J. King, a professor of anthropology at Virginia’s College of William & Mary who specializes in animal behavior.
King, the author of How Animals Grieve (University of Chicago Press), says that in some cases an animal’s response to a death is triggered by the surviving people in the house.
“We know with dogs, they’re so tuned in to our gestures and facial expressions,” King says. In some cases, though, “The depth of an animal’s response and the length it lasts seem to go beyond responding to people in the home.”
The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals did a still-quoted behavioral study in 1996 to gauge the degree of pet responses to the death of another pet. In both cats and dogs, the survey found, the category showing most change was solicitation of affection, with 34 percent of dogs demanding more attention and 24 percent became clingy/needy. In cats, the figures were 38 percent and 20 percent respectively.
Eating habits showed considerable change, with 36 percent of dogs and 46 percent of cats eating less than usual following the death of a housemate.
“I don’t want to say dogs grieve, cats grieve, horses grieve,” King says. “I say some dogs grieve. … Sometimes animals recover quickly or do not grieve at all, but I think they grieve for us.”
Grief isn’t limited to cats and dogs, King found.
“It was very surprising to me how much rabbits grieve. Ducks too. There was a duck rescued from a foie gras factory who had a duck friend die, and it didn’t survive the friend’s death. There can be a slow decline and death.”
King suggests letting the survivor see the body if possible.
“Lots of animal people on farms and in homes do this now,” she says. “Sometimes the survivor seems to get a sense of closure. You have two close pets, friends, one goes to the vet and … doesn’t come back. … If it’s possible, let them smell the dead animal, see it. It might help. Or get a clipping of fur from the animal at the vet and let the survivor smell it.”
Bringing a new, younger animal into the home has been shown to rejuvenate an older pet. But in the case of grieving, it might be best to let things run their course.
“Animals do love,” King says, “and we know one of the risks of love is grief.”