A dad brown dog rests his head on his paws.

Pets can form significant emotional bonds with their owners, and they’ll become heavily reliant on their human companions for care and affection. In the best cases, a pet will spend the majority of their life with the same owner. Tragically, this is not always the case.

Understanding how pets grieve can be a challenge, as we have limited information on the subject. However, even though there is a lack of knowledge surrounding pets and grief, many pet owners can attest to the notion that pets feel grief similarly to humans. 

When you care for a pet that has lost their owner, the most important trait they need from you is patience. To care for a grieving pet, be open to empathizing with their emotions, and give them ample time to adjust to changes in their lifestyle. All pets act differently when they are adjusting to the loss of a loved one; a grieving pet may not want attention, or they may refuse to be alone. The sensitivity of the situation makes a pet unpredictable at this time, but there are many things that you can do which communicate support and aid them in progressing through grief. 

What Happens to a Pet When the Owner Dies?

About 90% of American households have a pet. There is not a single path that pets take when their owners die, but rather a multitude of ways the situation can play out. Pets are considered property, so a person should account for that in a last will and testament. Ideally, a person will set up arrangements for their pet in their will, accounting for who their caretaker shall be and how much money is reserved for their care. 

If the pet owner has not made formal arrangements for their fur friend, the next in line to care for a pet by default are other members of the household. If the deceased lived alone and no other friends or family volunteered to care for the animal, sadly they would end up in a shelter. Every year, thousands of pets end up in shelters because their human companion passed on before them. This reality can only be avoided by planning ahead for our furry friends when we can.   

What Do We Know About Animals and Grief?

Scientists are noticing that animals across many species experience grief, debunking the belief that the complex journey is solely reserved for humans. While we don’t know much about how domesticated pets experience grief, many pets will show signs of acknowledgment that something has changed and others will even display many behavioral changes that compare to a human mourning: somber attitude, fasting, lack of motivation. 

Not every pet will need this time to mourn over the loss of their human companion, but when a pet is showing signs of grief, the appropriate approach to care is going to be uniquely based on the pet’s natural disposition. If the pet is generally high energy and hyper, encouraging that behavior may be motivating. Alternatively, if the pet was known to be a hermit or a couch potato, the same approach could be detrimental to your relationship. We know that pets have the ability to acknowledge death, and that journey is as unique to them as it is to us, so it is critical that those caring for grieving pets take enough time to thoughtfully understand their needs.    

Signs of Grief in Pets

While grief has many forms, you can study a pet’s behaviors to gauge how they are reacting to the loss of their human companion. Generally, pets that experience the grief journey will display a combination of some common mourning signs and will overcome the symptoms at their own pace.  There is no way to speed up the grieving process, but if they display grief in an alarming or harmful way, the help of a vet is necessary. 

Many of the most common behaviors that signal a pet is managing grief consist of: 

  • Change in appetite: One of the most alarming yet common signs of grief in pets is a dramatic change in appetite. Most notably, grieving pets may not have any motivation to eat, sometimes going days without food. This symptom should be closely monitored and addressed by a vet if prolonged.    
  • Vocal changes: When a pet is processing the loss of a human companion, it is common to witness a change in vocal patterns. A loud, higher-pitched bark can turn into a low-energy wince because they no longer have the motivation to speak. This symptom generally fades on its own but it is always advised to consult with a vet if you are nervous. 
  • Habitual changes: Oftentimes, grieving pets will not want to follow the same exact routine they once did and may adjust to entirely new patterns due to their mourning. Changes in diet, sleep, and bathroom habits are common and should be monitored for alarming abnormalities like irregularity and imbalance.  
  • Change in personality: In many cases, a pet may take on completely new traits and act differently than they did before their loss. A pet may be interested in different stimuli, want more or less attention from humans than usual, and approach meeting new people or animals differently. We can attribute these changes to the grief and see how it shapes this new chapter of their personality.   
  • Seeking out the deceased companion: A tell-tale sign that your pet is grieving the loss of their deceased human companion is constant searching, presumably for the person they miss. Many people account for their animals spending time right after a tragic loss looking for their companion in their favorite places: sleeping in areas that smell like them, waiting by the door, and attaching to meaningful objects.  

How to Support Grieving Pets?

Grief creates a complex set of emotions, behaviors, thoughts, actions, and perspectives on the world. We may not understand much about how animals grieve, but to many pet owners, it can look similar to our own ways of mourning. One of the best outlets a person can have for their grief is a consistent support system, which is exactly what your pet will need during this time as well. 

There are many ways to show your support for a grieving pet, such as: 

  • Extra attention and support: One of the best ways that you can show a grieving pet your support is to offer it through extra attention and specialized care. Even though we can’t verbally communicate with pets, we can read their body language and utilize other methods of non-verbal communication like allocating our time to their needs which prove sincerity in support. 
  • Help them stick to their usual routine: Most pets function at their best when they follow a daily routine. Helping a pet stick to the daily routine their human companion set for them while they were alive can be a great way to maintain a sense of normalcy while they process such a big change. In cases where you don’t know a pet’s typical routine, studying their natural habits can be a great indication. Does the pet get hungry or hyper at specific times of day? This persistence could be the pet communicating their needs as clearly as they know how. 
  • Increase exposure to their favorite things or places: A great way to distract a pet from their grief is to help them enjoy some of their favorite activities again. In some cases, a pet simply needs a reminder about how refreshing life can be even through mourning. Sticking to specific walk times/routes, having an ample supply of their favorite toys and treats, and scheduling pet-centered activities can not only help them find small points of joy in this process but can also help you both bond. When you can’t be three, a daycare facility like Greenlin Pet Resorts can be a beneficial resource in keeping your dog enriched and distracted throughout the day. 
  • Let them see the body of their deceased owner: This may not be practical in all situations, but by allowing a mourning pet to see the body of their deceased companion you are providing the only real kind of communicable closure a human can give a pet in this situation. This way, the pet won’t be left to wonder why they never see their favorite human anymore and they can find relief in knowing they weren’t abandoned. 

Grief is a Journey

Ultimately, a person or an animal processing grief is going to want a unique approach to care and support. When you are caring for an animal that has recently lost their owner, it is crucial to remember that they are processing an entirely new experience, and adjusting takes time! When you expose them to their favorite activities or attempt to bring in new ones, they may not respond how you imagined at first. 

A grieving pet may take longer to come around, especially if they have a very close relationship with their owner, but having the time and space to grieve may be all they need to do so. Remember, grief is a journey that can influence how we view our surroundings, so be your pet’s safe space through their difficult time. 

If you need assistance with helping a pet adjust to a new routine or want to offer them extra stimulation outside of the home setting, Greenlin is here to help you achieve a change of pace. We offer dog and cat boarding for animals that are having difficulty being left alone. Dogs can enjoy socialization and enrichment through our dog daycare, dog training classes, or a combination of the two. When you are looking for help aiding a pet through a tough time, we are here to offer our support and professional expertise. Reach out to us at any of our six Harrisburg area locations for more information.