Pet Talk: Helping our pets cope with loss

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Like humans, pets experience a complex array of emotions. The loss of a beloved human or a housemate can be devastating to animals in a household, leading to a period of grief and mourning.

It may be difficult for owners to tell if their pet is in mourning, but Kit Darling, infection control coordinator at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, suggests that when a loss in the family occurs, owners can help their pets cope first by keeping an eye out for physical signs and changes in normal day-to-day activities.

“Pets mourn in different ways, but some of the signs to look for are changes in eating and sleeping habits; lethargy or lack of interested in daily activities; insecurity; or vocalization,” Darling said. “They may not want to eat or play, and they may not want to participate in activities that they normally enjoy or even sleep in the same place.”

Not all signs of mourning are obvious, and Darling advises owners to watch for subtle changes in their pet’s behavior. 

“One of my dogs would not go in his crate upon command when his housemate passed away. Their crates were in the same room, and even after moving his crate into another room, he still would not go in it unless I actually picked him up and put him in,” she said. “So, it’s important to note changes in behavior, no matter how small.”

Although experts are uncertain of the level of comprehension dogs and cats have of death, pets can perceive emotion through body language and will sometimes respond to or mimic our demeanor. Darling reminds owners to continue about their day-to-day routine, and never forget to show their pet how much they are loved and cared for.  

“I think the owners and veterinarian should decide what works best in each situation,” she said. “Some ways to help our pets cope include keeping normal feeding and exercise schedules, taking a positive obedience or agility class, introducing new toys and exploring new places, and doing the things your pet loves most like going for walks, playing with toys, and cuddling.”

No matter how you choose to help your pet cope with loss, it is important to remember to remain patient throughout the process.

The death of a loved one can take an emotional toll on humans and animals alike, but with a little extra love and affection, the mourning period will seem less painful for both you and your four-legged friend.

Pet Talk is a service of the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, Texas A&M University. Stories can be found at vetmed.tamu.edu/pet-talk. Suggestions for future topics may be directed to editor@cvm.tamu.edu.

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