Pet Loss in a Multi-Pet Home

By: Carol Hurst, LVT

Houston, TX

Published March 2016

When a pet passes away, it is considered one of the most difficult aspects of owning a pet. This loss can happen in any scenario and doesn’t discriminate on age, breed, size or any other identifying factor. The loss can be quick and sudden or slow and prolonged. It can be within your control or completely outside of it. The only constant, unifying factor is the grief that feels like a heavy fog after his or her passing.

The stages of grief in humans are well-defined and understood. There are support groups for both human and pet loss. However, it may be difficult to find guidance on how pets process or transition to the loss of a companion pet. Research has not proven whether companion pets experience the same grief after a loss as humans do. Anecdotal evidence suggests our pets—the keen observers of our lives—are affected by pet loss. Reported grief behaviors include anything from just “looking sad,” hiding and “moping” around to loss of appetite and a desire to be closer to their human companions.

Step back and think about the life of your pet for a moment. They have their routines, their comforts and their expectations that they have developed over the course of their time with you. The presence of the companion was a part of this routine and comfort. They knew this companion’s routines and habits just as much as they know yours. Loss of this companion means a void in this series of habits and expectations. Regardless of whether you believe your pet is experiencing grief, there are steps you can take to promote overall well-being that helps in a variety of situations.

Letting Go

If euthanasia is indicated, some owners prefer to have the second pet present during the process. The general opinion is that if that pet can have some sort of closure by being there, then it will help them process the loss. However, the effects of loss, whether present or not, are impossible to measure. Ultimately, the decision would be left up to the owner.

Exercise

While this seems like the “cure all” for a variety of issues, it applies here just as strongly. A known promoter of mental and physical well-being for pets is exercise. Exercise is a healthy distraction for the physical or emotional distress they might experience. This exercise can take on a variety of forms. Dogs often enjoy running, walking, swimming and going to dog parks. Dog parks can be especially helpful if he or she is social by nature and enjoys the company of others. Cats can benefit from exercise as well. Laser light pointers or feather wands are great catalysts for play sessions.

Bonding

Losing a pet can make you want to use any remaining time with your other pet(s) wisely. In addition to exercising together, there are other ways to foster the bond you have with your remaining pet(s). Dogs typically respond well to training techniques that use positive reinforcement, which can be as simple as teaching them how to sit or as complex as training them for Flyball or Agility.

Routine

Aside from some of the above positive modifications, the pet’s routine should be kept as consistent as possible. Feeding times, bedtimes and other schedules should not change. Also, avoid reinforcing any negative behaviors that might have developed as a result of the loss. For example, it is normal for people to want to comfort their pets with “special” treats or food items. Getting into a bad habit of feeding fatty people food or excess treats that might have other health implications is not a good idea. This is why sticking to the pet’s dietary routine is best.

Replacement

Pets that have lost companions may appear lonely. Even if the pet is social and enjoys the company of others, adding a new pet to the household is a stress; combining this stress with the challenge of recently losing a pet might not produce favorable results for family members. Only when the owner is ready for the emotional and physical responsibilities of another pet should that be a consideration.

Even if it is unclear how deeply pets experience grief, there are many things that can be done to alleviate the stresses associated with losing a companion in a multi-pet household.

Carol Hurst, LVT, is a graduate of McLennan Community College who lives in Houston, Texas. She works at ABC Animal & Bird Clinic.