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Animal Grief

By November 6, 2023 Blog Post
My cats loved each other. They were surrendered to the shelter together, and I adopted them together as adults 12 years ago. Opposites in most ways, these two boys were bonded. Sleeping together, grooming each other, eating together, constant companions for over a decade. Tyr was laid back and confident, brown and long haired. Jon, in contrast, was high strung and nervous, white, with short hair. There were occasional squabbles, light tussles, but nothing serious. Their relationship helped them through the introduction of the new puppy, then the baby, moving houses numerous times, and myriad other life changes.
Tyr’s illness last year came on quickly. Within a week of finding the cancer lurking in his belly, we let him go. Jon showed no interest in saying goodbye – Tyr had been acting strangely, separating himself, sleeping alone. His pain medication kept him sleepy all day and night, and he wasn’t eating. Jon seemed aware that something had fundamentally changed, even before Tyr left us.
Afterwards, he was different. He needed more attention, seeking out interaction from his human family members more than he ever had before, with almost a desperate attitude. My grandmother loaned him a teddy bear to cuddle with, which seemed to help but still wasn’t the same. He missed his friend.
I hear stories of animal grief frequently from my clients. Animals will grieve the loss of their animal companions, or their human friends. Sometimes they will grieve a loss even if it is temporary, such as their favorite kid going off to college. In my experience, dogs tend to be more expressive with their grief than cats, sulking and sighing, laying around, searching for their missing friend. Cats are usually more subtle, changing where they sleep, hiding more, or changing their interaction patterns. Sometimes grief is surprising, like one of my cat patients who wanted nothing to do with the dog for years but wandered the house crying for him when he died, and slept in his bed.

I am asked frequently by my clients how to handle the grief their pets are experiencing. Some ask about pharmaceutical intervention – and in some cases, it seems appropriate in the short term to help with the adjustment if it is especially distressing. However, just like in humans, I think ultimately the only thing to do is give it time. We can’t know how long our pets retain their memories of their previous companions, or the sense that they are missing that friend. But over time, they adjust to the new normal and most resume their usual patterns and activities. My cat Jon did – within a few months he was brighter, playful, and seemed okay sleeping alone. He left us 10 months after Tyr did, succumbing to kidney failure as many older cats do. When we said goodbye, it was with the hope that somewhere, somehow, his friend Tyr was waiting for him.
-Dr Thigpin

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