For Peace of Mind When Your Pet Stays Behind

Pets Grieve When a Companion Animal Dies

Pets Grieve When a Companion Animal Dies

Pets grieve, but like us, each responds in their own way. The behaviors you might observe vary based on how closely they were bonded.  The surviving pets often begin to act differently when their companion first becomes sick or starts to decline. For people, this can be a time of preparation, and some grieving may be done well in advance of the pet’s actual death. We can’t know if surviving pets realize their companion will soon die, but they certainly do act as though they are aware a change has, or will, occur. You may see them paying special attention to their companion when their friend is ill and close to dying. If you notice your pet doing this, let them show some affection to the other animal. This will help them grieve when the time comes.

The Research

In 2016 Australian and New Zealand researchers conducted a study funded by Morris Animal Foundation. They surveyed 279 owners, investigating changes in behavior in dogs and cats that had recently lost a companion animal in their household. The survey helped document owner-perceived behavioral changes in 414 surviving pets, split evenly between cats and dogs. Many reported changes in the behavior of remaining animals following the loss of a companion animal in the home.

Behavioral ChangePercentage of Dogs InvolvedPercentage of Cats Involved
More demanding of attention3540
Being clingy or needy2622
Seeking less affection from owners1015
Seeking out the deceased’s favorite spot3036
Increased duration sleep3420
Decreased amount eaten3521
Slower eating3112
Increased frequency of vocalizations2743
Increased volume of vocalizations1932

Study: Owners’ Perceptions of Their Animal’s Behavioral Response to the Loss of an Animal Companion https://www.mdpi.com/2076-2615/6/11/68/htm

The team’s findings include:


Increases in affection were by far the most reported observation by owners.  These behaviors included a need to be closer to, or demanding more affection from, their owners.


Interestingly, dogs that lost another companion dog were more likely to slow down the speed at which they ate food, not necessarily the amount eaten, than dogs that lost a cat companion.


More dogs than cats experienced changes in sleep patterns. Surveyed owners reported about 42% of dogs experienced changes in sleep behavior, with 81% of those sleeping more.


Cats seemed to be more prone to changing how they vocalized, both in frequency and volume, than dogs after the death of a companion animal. Vocalization patterns usually returned to normal in about two months or less for most cats.


Most cats and dogs in the survey did not show any changes in the location of elimination or toileting, suggesting this may not be a key behavior change following a loss of a household companion animal.


Few pets in the survey exhibited increased aggression following a loss of a companion animal. The ones that did were more often cats showing increased aggression toward other animals within the house. Studies show that aggressive behavior is one of the most obvious signs of stress in cats. These findings leave the door open to debate if increased aggression is a hierarchical or territorial behavior, and if cats are just setting up new boundaries in the household.


Sixty percent of dogs and 63% of cats displayed a change in territorial behavior, of which 50% of these dogs and 56% of these cats sought out the deceased pet’s favorite hangouts. This behavior usually resolved itself in about two months or less.

Reactions to Deceased Body

Many owners believe seeing the deceased body will help their surviving pets understand that a loss has occurred. Owners surveyed reported 58% of dogs and 42% of cats viewed the deceased body of their companion animal. No distinct behavioral differences were noted by owners between the animals that saw the deceased body and those that did not. However, many of the animals that saw the deceased body of their companion were prone to sniff and investigate.  Although there is no scientific proof that viewing the body will help in the grieving process, it may and it’s unlikely that it would do any harm.

Duration of Behavior Changes and Grief

The researchers note the behavioral changes observed in this study parallel similar behaviors observed in separation anxiety such as crying and carrying on when you leave or engaging in destructive behavior.  The behavior changes tended to resolve at different times, with changes in affection subsiding between two to six months following the death of a household pet, for both dogs and cats and most other behaviors gradually stopping within two months of the loss.

American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) Companion Animal Mourning Project, 1996

This study found that after the death of a companion:


  • 46% percent ate less than usual after a companion cat died.
  • About 70% meowed either more often or less than was normal.
  • Over 50% became more affectionate toward their owners
  • Many slept more or slept in different places in the house.
  • In some cases, cats misbehave (not using the litter box, knocking things  over etc.)
  • Many of the cats exhibited multiple symptoms.


  • 36% ate less than usual after the death of another canine companion.
  • About 11% stopped eating completely.
  • About 63% vocalized more than normal or became quieter.
  • More than 50% became more affectionate and clingy
  • The quantity and location of sleep changed
  • 66% exhibited four or more behavioral changes

Signs of Grief

Clinginess: Reluctance to be in a room or home alone. They might follow you around the house or lie down beside you more than normal. When left home alone, they may become stressed.

Seeking less interaction: Socially detached, avoiding family members, no longer greets you when you return home.

Changed personality: Are they less or more: confident, timid, independent, laidback, adaptable, playful, fearful, happy, aggressive, skittish, dominant, friendly, affectionate, obedient, curious, cuddly, adventurous, silly, stubborn.

Changed sleeping patterns: location and duration

Changed eating habits: They may refuse to eat, eat at a slower pace, or have a reduced appetite.

Increased Vocalizations Whining or howling in dogs, or yowling and crying in cats.

Lack of interest in normal activities and in the things they usually love.

Wandering the house: Searching for their missing companion. Oftentimes, repeatedly checking places where their companion used to sleep and relax. Pacing, being unable to settle. If your cat is exhibiting searching behavior, it’s especially important to keep it indoors so that it doesn’t wander or get lost.

Changed grooming or bathroom habits, especially in cats

How to Help your Grieving Pet

Consider having your pet present during their companion’s death

At Home Passing

If your pet passes away at home during a euthanasia procedure or a natural end of life passing, it’s important to allow the other housemates to be able to touch, smell and be around their deceased companion’s body.  However, don’t force your surviving pet(s) to approach the body

Once they can be by their house mate, they may choose to lay beside them or near them.  Give them the time they need to process this so that they can heal and move forward.

Veterinarian Clinic Passing

It can be confusing for your surviving pet to watch you take their companion out of the house and then not return with them. One of the most heartbreaking situations occurs when the surviving pet cries and looks everywhere for their missing loved one.  This futile, search can go on for weeks.

Thus, to ease their confusion and give them a sense of closure, you might consider taking them with you to the vet when their companion is euthanized.  Not only can this help the surviving pet through the grieving process, but it can also be beneficial for the pet that has reached the end of its life to have every member of the family present to bring them comfort as they pass on.

Allow the surviving pet to say “goodbye” to the body after their friend has died. They may sniff and examine the body or ignore it all together.  Any reaction should be considered normal.  However, don’t force your surviving pet(s) to approach the body.

That’s the only way we can explain to them what has happened to their friend.  Viewing the friend’s body allows them to understand he’s not coming back. They still grieve but aren’t driven to look for their missing pal.

If you are not able to bring your other pet(s) to the vet clinic, after the procedure, take a fur clipping of the deceased pet and the blanket that he was in when he passed and bring them back to the surviving pet(s).   That way they’re not thinking, ‘Where did they go?’”.  It may help them to comprehend there is no need to search the house for the pet that has passed

Although there is no scientific proof that viewing the body will help in the grieving process, it may and it’s unlikely the viewing would do any harm.

Give Attention at the Appropriate Time

Don’t try to soothe them while they’re engaging in unwanted behaviors. This will only reinforce the behavior. As hard as it may be to do so, it’s best to ignore such behavior while it is occurring. Only give your pet attention, treats, or anything else that they might be seeking when they are acting in the way that you want them to. While it may seem cruel to ignore a pet who is suffering, remember that these behaviors will pass with time, unless your pet learns that they are the way to get what they want.

For example, a pet stops eating. If you then hand-feed the pet and praise it when it accepts morsels from the hand. In effect you are rewarding the pet for eating from the hand, rather than from a bowl. Thus, when you want the pet to eat from the bowl they refuse, preferring the one-to-one attention of handfeeding. This becomes a habit that is unhealthy for them and unsustainable for you. A much better option is to act normally around food and feeding time, thus reinforcing the impression that although the other pet is gone, some things remain the same.

Be careful when it comes to attention-seeking behavior. If your pet is not being overly demanding and doesn’t react poorly when you stop giving attention, it’s fine to respond to a gentle head on your knee or leap into your lap with affection. But if your pet is becoming too insistent, make sure you are the one to initiate your cuddle sessions, not the other way around.

Maintain Their Routine

It can be devastating to lose a beloved pet, and your life and any surviving pet’s lives will be thrown into turmoil. When your pet is going through one of the biggest adjustments they’ll experience, the loss of a friend, it’s important to keep other changes to a minimum.  The best thing you can do for your surviving pet(s) and yourself, is to maintain your regular routine as much as possible. If there is one thing pets love, it’s a steady routine and this won’t change when they’re grieving. In fact, they will crave that routine even more.  Try to keep mealtimes, exercise, walks, playtime, grooming, bedtime, and other daily activities on a consistent schedule. This reassures the pet that life goes on, which in turn helps them to cope.

A Special Note Regarding Feeding: Your pet may not have much of an appetite in the days following the death of a housemate, that’s normal but continue to offer the same food their used to, at the same time each day. Leave the food down for ten minutes then remove it.   Store any uneaten food in the fridge and offer it again at the next regularly scheduled mealtime. Grazing or free feeding is not recommended for either dogs or cats. Use their hunger to help them get their appetite back by resisting the urge to entice them with treats. If their appetite doesn’t pick up after several days or they’re refusing to eat anything at all, make an appointment with your veterinarian to rule out a health problem.

IMPORTANT: Cats should not go without eating for more than three days or they risk developing a potentially fatal liver condition called  hepatic lipidosis. Encourage eating by warming food slightly or putting water   or meat juice or it.  Don’t be tempted to change diets to stimulate appetite as this may cause digestive upsets. If your cat does not eat for three days seek veterinary  advice.

Lift Their Spirits

Do more of what your pets already love to do: Getting to do something fun and enjoyable with you can go a long way toward helping your pet cope and will help you feel better, too.

Engage in new activities: Give your pets something new to learn or focus on.  Many   dogs love to play “find it”.  Show your dog the item to be hidden such as a toy or treat then have the dog “sit” and “stay” while you hide it.  Go back to you pet and say, “find it”.  Teach your cat to play fetch.  A cat’s natural hunting instincts of   stalking and pouncing make it the perfect game for felines.

Interactive play:  Playing with your pet is not only a great way to provide some much-needed stimulation but it’s also a fantastic way to bond.  With your dog, play fetch or “who’s going to move first” or “I’m going to get you”, toss a Frisbee. With your cat, use a wand or pole toy and only have it available when a human is on the other end of it.

Exercise: It’s an antidepressant and stress reliever for both humans and animals. Take    your dog on some longer walks.  Play laser tag with your cat.  Have them climb up and down stairs or a cat tree in pursuit of the elusive red dot.

Prevent Boredom: – Your pet is used to having another pet with which to interact. They may have played together and kept each other company.  Puzzle toys are a great time passer.  They help pique curiosity, stimulate your pet mentally and help them improve their problem-solving skills. 

Social Interaction: If your pet enjoys company, invite friends over who will interact with them. A little human variety can pique your pet’s interest.


Our pets can sense and respond to our emotions, especially happiness and sadness.  They pick up on cues from our facial expressions and tone of voice. They can become stressed by our negative emotions like sadness and anger.  As hard as it is for you to cope with your own loss, talk to your remaining pet(s) in a calm and upbeat voice as often as possible. Try to keep your emotions in check. If your pet knows how hard you’re taking the loss, they might start worrying about you!

When a family loses a beloved pet, it’s hard on everyone, including surviving pets. Dealing with your own grief, and perhaps the grief of a child, is difficult enough without also worrying about a remaining pet that may have stopped eating or is showing other signs of depression.  During the stages of grief, you may feel tired and sluggish, especially for the first few days. You may find it hard to perform tasks and take care of things. You may want to spend time alone or with close friends. Despite your difficulties, it’s important to remember to take good care of your surviving pet(s) during this time. If you have trouble, ask family or friends to help you out.

Revised Social Structure

Establishing a new, comfortable social structure in the home following the loss of a human or animal family member is important for the entire family.  In multi-pet households, each member of the group has a specific relationship with every other member of the group. When an animal dies, it creates temporary instability within the group. This can result in conflicts that are disturbing to human family members, but unless one of your pets is becoming a danger to the others, it’s best to let them re-establish group dynamics on their own. If there’s a lot of growling, barking, hissing, or attacking that isn’t subsiding as the group settles into its “new normal,” consult either your veterinarian or a veterinary behaviorist for guidance on how to resolve difficulties between pets.

DOGSDogs tend to see the family, including other pets, as a unit and come to understand their position and role in relation to the rest of the pack. They need to know their place in “the pack” to feel secure.  When a member of their pack passes away, it can leave the survivor(s) feeling confused and anxious.

If the deceased dog was the leader, the survivor may feel insecure since his understanding of who is in charge has changed. This can show itself as barking excessively at other dogs, either to assert his newfound freedom, or more likely because he feels threatened and barks to warn other dogs off.

If the deceased was the subordinate dog, the surviving pack leader may experience a loss of purpose, in that his guidance and support is no longer needed. He may seem restless and aimless as he patrols around, without a pack member to follow his lead.

CATS – Cats have a narrow social structure with set boundaries that extend only as far as the inside of the house or the perimeter of the yard. Their days are focused on a smaller social circle that may include only the other pets and people within the immediate family unit. When a member of that family unit is gone, there is a huge void in the cat’s life.

In multi-cat households, one cat may be dominant and another submissive.  Once the dominant cat is gone, the remaining submissive cat might feel happier, calmer, and more confident than before.

Be Patient

Some pets will go through the grieving process quickly or not appear to grieve at all, while others may seem to get stuck. The study mentioned above found that grieving behaviors tended to resolve at different times, with changes in affection subsiding between two to six months following the death of a household pet and most other behaviors gradually stopping within two months of the loss. In general, pets who are making their way through their grief in a healthy manner improve gradually as time goes on.


When dealing with a grief, owners should respect what the pet is trying to communicate. For example, if a pet seeks out more attention, give it to them, but don’t force yourself on a pet who wants to spend some quiet time alone in their friend’s favorite spot.  Encourage a grieving and withdrawn pet to engage in some favorite activities is a good idea, just respect an answer of “not right now” if that’s what you get. Try taking your dog out for a walk around the neighborhood or break out your cat’s laser pointer. If your pet usually enjoys spending time with human or animal friends, invite them over for a visit. Food treats can also be used to encourage grieving pets to get involved with family activities once again.

Keep a close eye on how your pet is behaving. Have they taken to sleeping in the pet bed that belonged to their companion or spending time sniffing around the places that the other pet frequented?  If so, then give your pet the time and space that they need to do this. This activity is probably giving them some comfort. Don’t rush to make changes by washing their friend’s bed or putting away the items that belonged to the other animal.  However, if your surviving pet(s) seems to be avoiding these places, then it could be reminding them of their loss and adding to their stress. In this case, they may have an easier time coming to terms with their sadness if you give them a little help by quietly removing these things where you can.

Calming Aids

The Merck Veterinary Manual stated in 2016 that a variety of natural products have been used to treat anxiety; however, only a few have demonstrated any evidence to support efficacy. Products that have published studies indicating potential therapeutic effects to calm and reduce underlying fear and anxiety include:

Adaptil®, the canine appeasing pheromone, is available as a plug-in diffuser that infuses the pheromone into the air, or on a collar worn close to the dog’s skin. Adaptil contains a synthetic analogue of the chemical messenger (pheromone) given off by a nursing mother dog that makes her pups feel safe and content. The dog breathes the pheromone in, and it activates feelings of safety and wellbeing. While this is not a quick fix, it can help to decrease anxiety levels in a stressed dog.

Feliway® and Felifriend® the feline cheek gland pheromones can be used to calm cats. Although not effective for all cats, pheromone sprays and diffusers may help you create a more calming environment.

l-theanine (Anxitane®) Promotes relaxation in dogs and cats that are exhibiting nervousness, environmentally induced stress or are anxious.
α-casozepine (Zylkene®), Is a behavior supplement that helps dogs and cats relax, adapt to new locations, or cope with challenging situations without making them drowsy

Royal Canin Calm™ Feline and Canine a diet supplemented with α-casozepine and     l-tryptophan

Harmonease® is a natural supplement, combining Magnolia officinalis and Phellodendron amurense, designed to reduce stress-related behaviors in dogs.  The product is given once daily and is not associated with side effects.

CBD Warning

There is currently no scientific data on how using CBD oil affects dogs and cats. Additionally, CBD products are not yet regulated — meaning consistency and purity are not always validated. Therefore, if you’re considering using CBD oil as a treatment for anxiety, it’s best to consult with your veterinarian.

Know When Veterinary Care is Needed

After three to four weeks, pets who stop improving, take a step backward, or develop symptoms like persistent loss of appetite, vomiting, or diarrhea that are typically associated with physical illness should be evaluated by a veterinarian.  Sometimes the stress caused by the loss of a companion can bring about serious health issues that need to be addressed.  If your veterinarian gives your pet a clean bill of health, they may prescribe medications or recommend other forms of treatment that will improve your pet’s outlook on life.

IMPORTANT: Cats should not go without eating for more than three days or they risk developing a potentially fatal liver condition called hepatic lipidosis. For information on the symptoms visit: https://www.vetinfo.com/symptoms-of-hepatic-lipidosis-in-cats.html

Contemplating adding a new pet, not so fast

Pets tend to develop strong bonds with other pets in the household, especially if they were littermates, grew up together, or lived together for a long time.  Be sure your surviving pet is fully over their grief before you bring a new pet into the home. Most experts recommend waiting at least three months to give your surviving pet(s) time to adjust.

Grief is a process that is individual for each of us and each of our animal companions, and while some family members may be ready immediately for a new pet, others may not be. The best time to add another pet is when you feel ready, rather than immediately to comfort a surviving pet. Pets are individuals and if the survivor had a strong bond to the deceased, it is unlikely you will replicate this purely by adding another pet into the household – think of it in terms of “buying” a new best friend – as nice as it sounds, it just doesn’t work like that.

When all family members, human and pet(s) are ready to welcome another pet into the family, select one that will suit your current pet’s personality. Give special consideration if you have a senior pet in the household.  They might not enjoy having a rambunctious kitten or puppy in the home. 

In Conclusion

Pets grieve the loss of a beloved family member in much the same way as we do and have many of the same needs during this tough time. Losing a much-loved companion can be a big adjustment.  While it can be difficult to focus on your pet’s grief when you are in mourning yourself, doing so has a way of making everyone feel better in the end.

Showing some extra care and compassion towards a grieving pet will help them transition to life without their companion. Comfort them, calm them down, make them feel safe and secure.  Time will also contribute to the healing process. Loss will become easier to bear and fond memories will replace sorrow.