Lucy and Andy, my two cats, have been best buddies ever since we brought Andy home fourteen years ago, when Lucy was one year old. As I write, they are nestled next to each other. Lucy, who has always been very healthy, is starting to show the signs of age: recurrent urinary tract infections, and the beginnings of kidney failure. As a hospice bereavement counselor, I support family members through their anticipatory grief, and their grief after the death of their loved one. Is Andy starting to prepare for Lucy’s demise? How will she react after Lucy dies? How can I support her in the process? I know plenty about supporting humans through their journey of grief — how do I do that with my animal partners?
Many have observed behavioral changes in their pets after their animal and human companions die. They may search for their friend, stare out the window, seemingly in hopes that their friend will come back, stop eating, cry or seem depressed, clingy or withdrawn.
Some researchers believe that a cat or dog’s concept of death is similar to that of a young child. Young children do not have the cognitive development to understand the finality of death, and grief counselors urge parents to talk honestly about death, in as much detail as a child can understand and tolerate — we cannot do that with our pets. Pets can experience absence of what they became used to with their animal companions — their warmth when cuddling, their heartbeat, eating side by side. Some behaviorists believe it is helpful to show surviving pets the bodies of their deceased buddies. Indeed, it has been observed that a cat may stop searching for his or her playmate once shown the corpse of his dead friend. If that is not possible, searching behaviors may continue until the surviving cat realizes in some way that his or her friend is not coming back.
So, how do we support our grieving animal friends? As a grief counselor, I always keep in mind Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and it is therefore important to start with the physical. With humans, I always ask if they are eating and sleeping well and getting exercise, using psychoeducation to explain that grief is stressful in all domains — physical, emotional, social and spiritual — and that if the bereaved does not take care of the physical component, he or she will not be able to move forward in a healthy way on the journey of grief. Obviously, we cannot explain this to our animal companions. Instead, look for eating and sleeping changes. Not eating can be very dangerous in animals, and can lead to liver failure and death. Hand feeding may be necessary in this case, and the physical closeness involved in hand feeding can be soothing and aid in healing. It is also important to observe if the animal is urinating normally, as urinary tract infections can occur in times of stress.
Emotional support is also important in the healing of grief. I have observed time and time again how important touch is in working therapeutically with those who are dealing with loss. When I comfort a grieving spouse, a hospice patient who is scared and confused in dementia, and others who are experiencing the pain of loss, the touch of a hand or a hug is often far more healing than words. It is the same with our pets — massage them and talk to them in comforting tones. Continue to observe their behavior, and if they seem fearful, depressed or anxious, spend as much time as you can with them, talking to them in a soothing way and petting them so that they learn that they are safe.
Our pets are very sensitive to changes in their human companions’ emotions, and may become anxious. Therefore, it is important for us to take care of ourselves, and get the support we need, whether from friends, a grief counselor or a support group, so that we can best support our pets.