Sad parrot

Most of us don’t want to think about death. It’s an unsettling and largely unwelcome topic. Humans are emotional creatures by nature, and the majority aren’t well equipped to handle a death of a family member, friend or pet. But for a beloved cat or dog, the ordeal may be easier to bear.

Animals don’t fear death, says Stephanie LaFarge, senior director of counseling services for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

“If we’re grieving, it’s absolutely normal for us to presume or project grieving onto our pets,” she says. “Since pets share our emotional world, it’s a very important topic.”

Grief comes in many forms

Animals can instinctively recognize death, she says, and there’s strong documentation of wild animals grieving. However, there is no consensus among pet experts on how animals grieve.

“Pets probably know a lot more about death than we think they do,” she says.

Grief-stricken pets might eat less, sleep more, be lethargic, seek more contact and reassurance, and even search around the house for the deceased person or animal.

LaFarge says if the behavior lasts more than a few days, you must visit your veterinarian. What you might mistake for grief could be a different medical issue.

“The most important thing is to not let their assumptions that their pet is grieving (get mixed up) with something that might actually be wrong,” she says.

Making up for a loss

Following a death of a pet, many people expect a companion pet to be sullen. But they may be surprised and get the opposite, LaFarge says.

“Sometimes owners get distressed, but the animals could react without grief,” she says, based on personal experience.

LaFarge once owned two dogs—one that was particularly affectionate with men, while the other didn’t really seem to want to interact with them.

“(The one dog) would get all the attention. But when she was gone, the other dog stepped in,” she says. “He just didn’t have room to get to the men.”

The surviving dog was happy to to have an opportunity to “take the reward” that he previously wasn’t able to get.

Return to ‘normal’ life

Regardless of how your pet reacts to a death, LaFarge says not to rush to add a new animal to the household.

“It’s just too great of a stress on you and the animals,” she says.

Give yourself and other pets enough time to mourn, and develop new routines without your lost loved one.

And try to keep the surviving pet’s schedule as routine as possible. Many owners want to help their pets grieve, LaFarge says, but most won’t need help.

“It’s normal, and they will go through it in their own way,” she says, adding that there’s no harm in squeezing in extra time for playing, walking or just relaxing.

“The purpose of grief is to get back psychological energy to move forward. That’ll help you even if it doesn’t help the pet,” she says.