Despite cultural and religious traditions that predict what happens when we die, we don’t really understand death or know for a fact where we go or if we go anywhere. Across all human societies, grief is universally experienced, even though there are many different legends and belief systems of what happens next. Do nonhuman animals understand what death is? Do they understand the concept of death as we do? Is it necessary to understand that life has been extinguished to FEEL the loss?
Are human beings alone in feeling the impact of the absence of someone we love? There is recent evidence that suggests that our close relatives the chimpanzees, at least, show signs of clinical depression when they lose a member of their social group. It has long been my opinion, that our pets are certainly impacted by the loss of people and other pets with whom they have shared their homes and lives. Dogs and cats develop strong emotional bonds with people as well as with other pets. They can develop signs of depression or anxiety, such as loss of appetite and social withdrawal, in response to the death of a close companion. These reactions are usually brief, but serious or prolonged reactions following the death of another member of the household (human or nonhuman) are reported. This does not mean that pets understand the concept of death; however, they certainly can feel emotional pain caused by the absence of an attachment figure. In every way, grief is an extreme form of separation anxiety. From this perspective, your pets may well react to death of someone in your intimate circle.
Part of the emotional reaction and recovery of surviving pets will depend on you. Your grief reaction will affect your surviving pets; their behavior and mood will necessarily be impacted by your deep sadness. During your initial time of grief, your remaining pets may get less attention, exercise and playtime with you because you may not feel up to playing with them, taking your dog for a walk. They can sense that you are low, and that can make them anxious or depressed, too. Although this is a difficult time for, it is important to maintain your daily schedule of walks, feeding, or play time. This will help your surviving pets to adjust, and will also be very comforting to you.
If your dog or cat shows any prolonged behavioral or psychosocial change following the loss of a housemate or other member of your family, consult your veterinarian. Your veterinarian will want to make sure that there is no medical cause for the change; stressful life events can trigger health problems for all of us. Consult with a veterinary behavior specialist who can advise you on ways to assist your pet to cope better with the transition to a life beyond the loss.
“There is no difference between the pain of man & the pain of other living beings, since the love & the tenderness of the mother for her young ones is not produced by reasoning but by feeling, & this faculty exists not only in man but in most living things.”
Maimonides (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, the Rambam)