Do dogs and other animals feel pain and grief?
For decades, researchers have noted the mourning various animal species seem to experience when a family member dies. Elephants, for example, have been documented appearing to mourn the loss of a family member, whether an elderly matriarch or a stillborn calf. Chimpanzees and orcas have also been observed in mourning-like behavior.
What about pets?
As I write this, my husband and I are grieving the death of our beloved springer/cocker mix, Mary. We adopted her in 2013 when she was nearly seven years old. Although we didn’t spend her entire lifetime as her guardians and caregivers, Mary touched our hearts and lives in special ways. Sensitive, friendly, and kind, Mary was trained as a therapy dog, and her sweet disposition generated friends, both human and animal, during the years she lived with us. I wrote two children’s books about her, including A Kind Dog Named Mary, by which Mary reminds children that kindness is a great virtue. She exuded kindness and made impacts wherever she went.
That positive impact included the other pets in our house. From the aging Cody, who lived three extra years after Mary came to live with us, to puppy mill survivor Jeremiah, Mary was a true friend.
Now that Mary is gone, Jeremiah, especially, notices her absence. One day he didn’t eat at all. He is somewhat more lethargic, and he doesn’t play with his toys quite as much. He cuddles with my husband and I more. All of these are indicators, according to pet experts, that Jeremiah is mourning Mary’s death.
Well-known veterinarian Dr. Karen Shaw Becker states that dogs and cats “can experience sadness and grief at the loss of a beloved human or animal companion.” She cites the example of a military dog lying near the casket of its beloved human comrade (the television show, NCIS created an episode “Seek” which showcased a similar experience). Dr. Becker also states that behavior changes are common when pets grieve, so Jeremiah’s lack of appetite and desire for closer human companionship are not rare when a pet is mourning the loss of a beloved friend.
Before Mary, my husband and I had a blind springer spaniel named Sage. Like Mary, Sage developed cancer, and on the last night at home, as her breathing labored and her death drew closer, so, too, did the animals in our household. Cody, the cocker spaniel we’d adopted four years earlier, laid beside Sage in the living room. Our two cats also came into the room and stayed close by. They seemed to sense Sage’s near-demise and seemed to come to say goodbye to her. For several days thereafter, Cody seemed depressed. My husband and I took him on short drives and engaged in several walks a day. Keeping the surviving pets engaged and keeping a steady routine are highly recommended by pet experts after the passing of a beloved animal companion.
Perhaps you, too, have experienced the death of an animal companion – did you notice changes in the behavior of your surviving pets? Did they appear to mourn the loss? I’d be interested in hearing of your own experiences – feel free to leave a comment.
Getting another dog buddy is likely on the horizon, as Jeremiah probably needs another companion (as my husband and I). But, as many animal experts agree, doing so right away is not recommended. We will know when the time is right.
Meantime, we will share our grief as a family, and my husband and I will dote on the pets Mary left behind. Afterall, that’s what families do – help each other during difficult times.
Here are links to some articles on animal grief should you be interested:
“No one can truly understand why dogs are called “man’s best friend” until they have experienced the loss of one.”
“When the cat you love becomes a memory, that memory becomes a treasure.”
(quotes from https://www.loveliveson.com/loss-of-pet-quotes/)
Every journey with a pet is unique. Each death of a pet is unique. As I research write these words, my husband and I are dealing with the final days of our beloved Mary. A springer/cocker mix, Mary has been our special companion for more than six years. We adopted her when she was almost seven, nearly a year after the loss of another much-loved dog. Mary’s former owner had passed away suddenly, and Mary went into rescue; we learned about her and drove 300 miles one way to meet and adopt her. She has brought much joy and comfort to us during the time we’ve been blessed to call her “ours.”
Trained as a therapy dog by her previous owner, Mary has positively impacted many lives. I’ve written two children’s books about her (and am in the final stages of completing a third), and together, we’ve visited libraries and schools. Mary’s kind, sweet nature won over children and adults alike. She provided comfort for elderly folks, and to my husband and me. Her intuition for people who were down physically and emotionally has been incredible to observe, and her patience and affection for other animals allowed us to bring in another dog 18 months ago who needed her guidance and friendship. My husband and I worry how Jeremiah, our rescued Shih Tzu, will handle Mary’s passing.
This is not the first time we’ve faced the death of a beloved pet. In our 20 years together, my husband and I have experienced the passing of two dogs and one cat, and before we met, we grieved the loss of animals as children and younger adults. However, the experience never gets easier. Each pet has brought love, fun, joy, and devotion to our lives, touching our hearts in their own special way. And, their passing leaves a void. Yet, their lives leave memories galore!
Each pet parent’s experience with the loss of a beloved animal is a personal journey. Some people grieve for months, even years. Just as the loss of a human friend or loved one pierces the heart, so does the loss of a beloved animal companion. And just as the journey of grief for another person is personal and unique, so is the journey of pet loss.
Experts note the stages of grief after losing a pet are similar to those experienced at the loss of a human loved one: denial, anger, guilt and acceptance. They also agree a person needs to grieve the death of a pet. Some adults may try to keep their sadness, guilt, and other emotions in-check, being embarrassed to acknowledge how their animal’s death affects them; however, bottling up those emotions isn’t healthy. A person needs to accept and acknowledge the depth of grief they feel in order to start the path of healing. Also, don’t let other people tell you how you “should” feel – as noted earlier, this journey is a personal one and other people are NOT you and you are NOT them. Talk with friends and family who are understanding and empathetic, those you believe will be of help to you and with whom you feel comfortable sharing. Some communities, either through veterinarian’s offices or other organizations, offer pet bereavement support groups; consider going to one. There are also online sites where you can share your thoughts about the loss of your companion, take part in a memorial service, and connect with others who are going through their own pet loss journey.
Whatever your pet loss story, whatever your journey, know that over time your broken heart will heal. And, perhaps one day, another sweet dog, cat, horse, hamster, or other animal will share your love and your life.
Here are a few websites that help pet parents deal with the loss of a beloved animal:
A POEM FOR THE GRIEVING
Do not stand at my grave and weep.
I am not there, I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow,
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain,
I am the gentle autumn's rain.
When you awaken in the morning's hush,
I am the swift uplifting rush
of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry,
I am not there, I did not die...
-Mary Frye (1932)
According to recent statistics, there are nearly 70 million stray animals in the United States, and only about six to eight million enter the nation’s shelters. Additionally, only two percent of stray cats are reclaimed by their owners compared to the (still low) number of 30% for dogs.
July is Lost Pet Prevention Month. There are many ways to insure your pet’s safety and offer hope for a safe return in case it does become lost.
My husband and I have a variety of ways to keep our pets safe. We use the Whistle and Marco Polo on our dogs, especially when we travel, and all of our pets have microchips. Our cats are indoor animals with cat trees and other furnishings near windows to give them outdoor viewing opportunities. The dogs also live inside and when they are outside in our 6-foot wooden fence backyard for extended periods of time, we are with them. They also wear collars with ID tags.
Losing a pet is difficult. I have walked that road before, thankfully, with a happy ending. I also have friends whose pets have gone missing, one lost her dog for nearly three weeks before successfully finding her precious pup and bringing her home.
For your sake and the sake of your furry family members, do all you can to help them NOT become a lost pet statistic.
One of the most difficult aspects of being a pet owner is dealing with the loss of a beloved companion. Just more than a year ago, my husband and I lost our beloved blind Springer Spaniel, Sage, who had been part of our lives for nearly 12 years. Losing her was not easy; in fact, we still grieve some days, even though we still have Cody and we recently adopted a new dog named Mary. Grief is a feeling I don’t relish.
How does one deal with the loss of a pet? Grief experts remind us that intense sadness is normal. During the years, even if the years are few in number, the pet we have becomes a significant and constant part of our life, and their absence is felt deeply. People experience different emotions when a beloved pet dies, not just sorrow or pain; sometimes it’s anger, sometimes it’s guilt and sometimes it’s depression. Experts state that one should honestly acknowledge their feelings, not hide or deny them. Try to find a confidant with whom to share your feelings, perhaps another pet owner, a sympathetic family member or friend, in other words, someone who will provide you comfort and understanding, not one who will belittle your true emotions. What you feel is real – don’t mask it.
When talking with children about a pet’s death, honesty is critical. If you say the pet was "put to sleep," be sure your children understand the difference between death and ordinary sleep. It’s not wise to say the pet "went away," or your child may wonder what s/he did to make it leave and be anxiously awaiting its return. Make it clear to your children that the pet will not come back, but that it is happy and free of pain. Children are never too young or too old to grieve. Please don’t criticize your child for tears or for feeling sad. Be honest about your own sorrow and let them be honest about theirs. Discuss the loss as a family, and give everyone a chance to work through their grief in their own time.
If you have other pets in the house, they may also grieve the loss. Pets observe household changes, therefore, they are bound to notice the absence of the other pet and the change in the family’s emotions. Pets can form strong attachments to each other and they recognize when their friend is gone. You may need to give your surviving pet lots of extra attention to help it through this period. That extra attention is helpful for you as well; surviving pets can provide great healing to you and your family. Take time before bringing a new pet into the household as children and surviving pets may not accept a new addition for awhile.
Grieving is a very personal and individualized experience. People grieve differently, therefore, there is no “right way”. Simply being honest with yourself and your family is the key to dealing with the loss of a beloved pet. Grief is part of life, and though it’s a part that may be difficult, healing does come when we allow it.
It’s not easy to lose those we love, but not loving at all is the true loss. Hearts heal to love once again… in time, just as my husband and I felt ready to love Mary... and we do! Though we still miss Sage, we are open to sharing our hearts and home with Mary, an act that will benefit both her and us.
Do you or someone you know face the loss of a beloved pet? For more information about coping with the that grief and the loss of a pet, visit http://www.helpguide.org/mental/grieving_pets.htm.
Gayle M. Irwin is a writer and public relations professional who volunteers with various animal rescue groups. She enjoys sharing her books and her passion for pets and the environment with others.