Helping a Pet Endure the Death of a Loved One

(below is a letter written many years ago to the Dr. Michael Fox, Animal Doctor, column)



Dear Dr. Fox:  Our mixed-breed terrier was very close to my husband, who passed away recently.  This dog searches in all the places they went together, eats little and stays in her room most of the time.

            My son and I try to give her a lot of attention, but she is truly grieving (as we all are).  Can you suggest anything we can do?                          ---N.N.



Dear N.N.:  I hope that all of those people who refuse to believe that dogs have souls and feelings will read your story.

            Once we acknowledge that most dogs will grieve the loss of a human or animal companion, we can be supportive of them and actually go through the grieving process together.

            Many grieving dogs show the symptoms you mention.  Some will also lose all interest in the daily routines that usually give them pleasure, such as a romp in the park and eating.  It’s pitiful, especially the periodic searching for the absent one.

            A grieving pet needs more loving attention than usual.  Frequent walks and physical activity are also very good.  I suggest, too, that you try to remove any of your husband’s things that carry his odor, such as boots and gloves, since they will trigger your dog’s memory of him.

            Unless your dog is very old and set in her ways, or generally insecure, in time, you might bring in another dog to be a companion.  That frequently stirs life in a mourning animal.

            As with adults, time heals.  Generally, the severe mourning period for dogs lasts about a month before it begins to abate.


Note from Suzanne:  I once read that the uncertainty of seeing a loved one alive and then disappearing and not coming back is one of the things animals find so difficult.  They don’t know what has happened, so keep looking for and hoping their loved one will return.  This reading suggested, when possible, letting the pet(s) see and sniff the deceased loved one; thus letting them recognize the finality.  Since that time, my wonderful vet, Dr. James Kutrybala, Ardda Animal Hospital, Rochester, NY, has come to my home when euthanization was necessary.  This made it possible for me to bring the remaining dogs in to see their deceased companion.  To be frank…I could not tell if the “death” actually registered.  Sometimes they were “afraid” (which could have meant they sensed/sniffed that something was “wrong”), sometimes they just seemed oblivious to the situation.  But, I felt better, knowing that their last remembrance was not of a live dog leaving but never coming back.