Do animals grieve the loss of human or animal family members and friends? We can’t ask them, but their behavior sheds light on the subject
By Kim Campbell Thornton
Andrews McMeel Syndication
The day before Thanksgiving, we learned that our 81-year-old neighbor, Mary Lou, had died unexpectedly in her home. Besides missing her presence ourselves, my husband and I felt bad for our dogs, Harper and Keeper. They loved Mary Lou with a passion -- could it have been the treats she handed out so freely? -- and their love was returned a hundredfold. I wished I could explain to them that she wouldn’t be there anymore.
For a dog or cat, the disappearance of a person or animal from their life -- whether by death or the breakup of a family through divorce -- disrupts life in many areas: routine, companionship and social relationships. Pets who have lost a human or animal friend often show signs of depression, says Wailani Sung, DVM, behavior specialist at San Francisco SPCA. Decreased appetite, a lack of energy, lethargy, vocalizing, pacing and weight loss are among the actions that can signify grief. Many people say their pets express grief in a number of ways.
Becoming attached to the area where the pet or person slept is common. On the death of Navarre, a flat-coated retriever, his fellow flat-coat, Izzy, slept on Navarre’s bed for a week, says Jill Gibbs of Billings, Montana. Reegan Ray’s boxer, Winifred, was caring for her week-old puppies when her mother, Pip, died. Ray had a few of Pip’s beds stacked outside, and at first Winifred simply gave them a quick sniff as she went out, wanting to get back to her litter quickly. After another week, though, she pulled the beds down and rolled in them. Ray says Winifred and Pip did the same thing together when her male boxer had died three years previously.
Lynn Williams says her brother was a favorite of her cavalier King Charles spaniel Bella.
“I brought home things he had with him when he died, but the dogs paid no attention to them,” she says. “A few weeks later, I brought Bella to his house. She was so excited, running through the house until she got to his bedroom. She stopped and ran to the front door and wanted out immediately. I thought that was when she ‘got’ that he was gone.”
Often, pets search for their missing friend. Susan Conant of Newton, Massachusetts, says her Chartreux cats, KC and Celeste, were devoted companions. For weeks after Celeste died, KC looked everywhere in the house for her.
“Her search was heartbreaking,” Conant says.
Aidan, a fawn Abyssinian, lost weight mourning the loss of his human friend, Jack. “Aidan grieved for about two years,” says owner Linda Kay Hardie. “He finally put some weight back on after being scary skinny for a while.”
Sometimes pets develop separation anxiety or lose housetraining.
Corgis Gael and Rhiannon never seemed close, but when Rhiannon died, Gael began having accidents in the house, says Susan Ewing of Jamestown, New York. “We couldn’t leave her for even 20 minutes without coming back to a puddle,” she says. “When we got our new puppy, all was fine once again.”
Incidents like that may be related to patterns developed with the other dog, says Debra Horwitz, DVM, a veterinary behavior specialist who practices in St. Louis. What might happen is that one dog patterned when to go out based on the other dog’s habits but never learned to “ask” to go out on his own.
“What I normally tell people is if the dog or cat had a certain routine with the other housemate, I suggest they try and find a new routine for that animal,” she says.
Harper and Keeper still want to go to Mary Lou’s front door, but we’re taking Dr. Horwitz’s advice and trying to build new habits with them. But no matter what, we’ll always miss Mary Lou.
Where to look for
a dog to adopt
Q: My workout partner wants to adopt a Maltese who is good with children, housetrained and 2 to 3 years old. Where should she go?
A: Start with the website of the national breed club. The American Maltese Association Rescue is a nonprofit organization affiliated with the American Maltese Association, and it is dedicated to helping down-on-their-luck members of the breed. Its volunteers may also be able to refer your friend to local or regional Maltese rescue groups. She should check local shelters or humane societies for dogs who meet her criteria, and put the word out to friends, neighbors, dog groomers, trainers and veterinarians who may know of dogs in need of homes.
She has one problem, though, and that is that many rescue groups and reputable breeders won’t place toy breeds such as Maltese in homes with young children. Maltese can be fragile and easily injured if accidentally mishandled or dropped by a child. Unless the children in question are responsible teenagers, your friend may be turned down for a dog she wants to adopt.
It’s great that your friend has some specifics in mind for what she wants in a dog. That helps people narrow their choices. But it’s also important to keep an open mind when looking. Getting stuck on a particular breed or age can cause people to pass up the perfect pet without even knowing it.
Rescue group volunteers know these dogs well and will have a good idea of which person or family is the best fit. They may suggest another dog if the one she likes might not be a good choice for her situation. When people go with the process and are open to alternatives, they can find themselves with the perfect dog -- one they might never have considered on their own. -- Mikkel Becker
Do you have a pet question? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org or visit Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker.
Study finds size
increase in cats
-- Many animals become smaller with domestication, but Viking cats from the medieval era took a different path: They became larger than the average cat. It’s the first time that this type of size change has been documented, according to Belgian archaeozoologist Wim Van Neer of the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences in Brussels, commenting on a study conducted by Julie Blitz-Thorsen and Anne Birgitte Godfredsen. The bones studied encompassed a period of some 2,000 years, ending in the 17th century. Researchers aren’t sure yet of the reason for the size difference, but they suspect the cats may have had access to more or better food, possibly from greater amounts of discarded food waste or a higher number of rodents attracted by edible garbage.
-- A Siberian husky made the news for detecting his owner’s ovarian cancer not once, not twice, but three times between 2013 and 2016. Sierra sniffed at Stephanie Herfel intently several times and then went and hid. Herfel, who had been experiencing abdominal pain, took note of the strange behavior and decided to see the doctor just in case. She was diagnosed with cancer and underwent treatment but experienced two recurrences. Each time, Sierra displayed the same behavior, alerting Herfel that something was wrong.
-- Sighthounds are sleek and speedy dogs who hunt by sight, chasing anything that moves and running it down for the hunter. They are known for their long, narrow heads -- the technical term for their head shape is “dolichocephalic” -- long legs, deep chests and graceful movement, almost as if they’re floating. This type of dog likely originated in the Middle East, based on recent genetic findings. Sighthound breeds include greyhounds, Afghan hounds, salukis, borzoi, Irish wolfhounds, Scottish deerhounds, silken windhounds, whippets, Azawakhs and sloughis. The Italian greyhound is a sighthound in miniature. -- Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker
ABOUT PET CONNECTION
Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by "The Dr. Oz Show" veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and award-winning journalist Kim Campbell Thornton. They are affiliated with Vetstreet.com and are the authors of many best-selling pet-care books. Joining them is dog trainer and behavior consultant Mikkel Becker. Dr. Becker can be found at Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker or on Twitter at DrMartyBecker. Kim Campbell Thornton is at Facebook.com/KimCampbellThornton and on Twitter at kkcthornton. Mikkel Becker is at Facebook.com/MikkelBecker and on Twitter at MikkelBecker.