Jeffrey Vogl, DVM
Ask the Veterinarian
8:00 PM EDT, July 6, 2011
Q: I have father and son cocker spaniels, both born in my house and used to being together. The father is 12 years old though, so I know the time will come when he will leave us. Since the younger (age 7) has always been around his dad, when that passing does occur, do dogs go through a "grieving" process, or experience separation anxiety at having lost such a constant presence?
A: Of course it is hard on us when we lose one of our furry friends. Our families and friends all grieve with the death of a pet whose life bring us so much joy and happiness, yet whose time also seems so short with us. Sometimes we are prepared for this loss and can see it coming; other times it hits us out of nowhere, or worse, for no apparent reason. We try to make sense out of it, but sometimes we can’t.
We aren’t the only ones who feel this loss. The other four-legged playmates in the house are also left to deal with these changes too.
Those of us who have multiple pets may or may not realize what incredible dynamics are going on between them every second of every day. It just amazes me how animals relate to each other (to a lesser extent us). For dogs, it seems we are just part of their pack and often we get in the way of a great hierarchy in the house. I watch my yorkie Scooter rule all the other dogs in our pack. He can take a toy out of Remi’s (our massive bulldog) mouth just to cause trouble and say he can. (Scooter has small dog syndrome though. Those of you with smaller dogs know how common this is.) This is the balance in our pack and it works. There is a comfort level in a hierarchy for dogs. Look at the success in the social order of wolf packs.
When there is a loss of a member in the pack, there is no question other pets in the house feel this loss too. It upsets the balance, companionship, interactions of everyone. That other pet is a huge part of their life too, so the dynamics change immediately. In addition, I am convinced that dogs, who read people’s emotions in a nanosecond (as they have with their pack mates for millions of years) also realize we are grieving too. We see dogs and cats that won’t eat, sleep in different places, search out their missing friend, and become lethargic among other behaviors.
Sometimes I see this go on for several weeks, with both dogs and cats. I am curious what behaviors you have witnessed?
My best suggestion has always been some type of distraction as a means of helping. By this I mean; do different things, take them in the car to different places to run around, (a park, Notre Dame, the river walk, St. Pat’s park, ); take them on errands (watch the heat); feed them at different times and in different places; new toys, new treats. Do anything to change up the routine. New smells, new sights and new sounds all help in a dog’s world. We have some great dog parks to have interaction with other dogs too (if they are the social type).
One very interesting, yet understandable effect I have witnessed is that a submissive, quieter individual in a household may “open up” and become more outgoing and exhibit new behaviors that may have been kept in check by the more alpha pet. Is this a changing of the guard?
By the way, a word of caution, be careful not to “comfort them” in the wrong way in dogspeak. I would not advise trying to pet them, soothe them, and speak softly to them telling them that everything will be ok, because in dog language, you are actually telling them that they should be acting this way. This will make getting out of this “funk” a lot harder because you are encouraging them to behave this way.
And if it makes sense in your situation, there is nothing wrong with considering the pitter patter of new furry feet to bring in some joy to our pack. There is nothing like a wiggling hind end, a pouncing purrbox, a wet nose, or warm sleeping furball to bring a smile back.
Copyright © 2013, WSBT-TV