The more we learn about animals, the more we learn that their internal and emotional landscapes are far more complex than science originally imagined. In particular, and most relevant to hospice and to those pet owners with elderly or ailing animals, we know now that grief is not an exclusively human emotion. Our pets feel loss and emotional distress when another member of the family passes away – perhaps not in the same way that we do, but it affects them, and people who care for them often find themselves asking what they can do to help their pets through this difficult time.
The first thing to realize is that your pet may already be far more aware of the situation than you imagine. Animals are highly perceptive, and aware of one another and changes in their housemates, often in ways that other humans in the household may not recognize. Many dogs and cats will change their behavior towards an ailing pet, and this is normal. You may see changes in their personality and their interaction with people in the house as well; all of these changes are part of the pet’s processing and adapting.
A lot of people ask me whether it helps to have other animals in the family present when a beloved pet is being euthanized, and my answer is that there’s no one right way to do this. Every family, and every pet, is different. If your pets are closely bonded, and are tolerant of strangers in the house that they won’t be distraught by the vet’s coming to visit, then it may be helpful to offer them the chance to be present – but I would never recommend forcing an animal to stay in the room. If they choose to leave, let them. And ultimately, if their presence is distressing to the people in the room (either because the pet is fearful, vocalizing, or creating a disturbance), it can be best to keep them out of the area. If you’re concerned about them being left alone, having a friend stay with them in another part of the house can be helpful.
Another option, if you’ve chosen for a home euthanasia, is to have the vet come and spend a little time with both pets beforehand. Going for a short walk, if the weather is cooperative, playing with favorite toys, or just letting the vet give them some of their favorite treats, can create a positive experience and memory for everyone involved.
Once your pet has passed, other animals in the household (just like people) may show changes in their behavior. Loss of appetite, anxiety, seeking attention, or signs of confusion are all signs of grief and loss in pets. In these situations, the most important thing you can do is keep their routine as normal as possible. Keep the same diet and feeding schedule, interact with them in the same ways you did before, take them for walks in the same places or play with the same toys. Stability is reassuring to our pets, just as it is to people. Exercise can also be helpful – if you have a pet that seems particularly distressed at the loss of a housemate, extra walks, extra playtime, or extra training classes or sessions can help them through this difficult time.
And above all else, take care of yourself. Our pets are highly aware of our emotions, and they feel anxiety and distress when we do. Allow yourself to grieve, be gentle with yourself, and take care of your own emotional needs. Your pets will take comfort as you do.
Of course, if your pet is not eating for more than a few days, if the behavioral changes are severe or not improving within a week, or if you are seriously concerned at any point, get them evaluated by your regular vet. While grief is real, so are other health problems, and it’s important to make sure that we’re not missing a serious physical concern. And, whenever you’re in doubt, call your vet. We’re here to help you, and we can and will do our best to answer your questions and offer you the best advice for your situation – with medicine, there’s no one perfect, one-size-fits-all answer for everyone.