Often, when we’ve left a pet-sit, we hear that the dog had sunk into a funk. The owners have told us that Fido wandered from room to room looking for us, and jumped up at the sound of someone at the door, thinking we’d returned. Then, after a few days, when he realized we were gone for good, he plopped down, put his head between his paws, and let loose a heavy sigh. Awww. Besides being a little flattering, it’s mostly just sad.
But not, of course, as sad as if we’d died, or if one of his permanent pack members had died. Would the grief have gone much deeper? Experts say yes. The SPCA conducted a study that monitored the behaviours of pets left behind after a companion pet has gone on to the four-legged heaven above. It showed that 36 per cent of dogs ate less, 11 per cent stopped eating entirely, and 63 per cent either withdrew, became lethargic or, in the opposite, outwardly more agitated and vocal. About 50 per cent became needy, demanding increased affection, and developed separation anxiety. The loss of a pack member had upset their routine, their confidence, their security, and their place in the pack.
As much as you too are grieving the loss of your pet, it’s up to you, as the pack leader, to take control of the situation, however hard that may be. Dogs (and cats) pick up on emotion, and if they sense you’re upset, it will only add to their distress and they’ll feel even more lost. In fact, it’s possible they’re not feeling the loss of a companion at all, but simply reacting to the change in you. It’s possible you’re projecting grief onto your pet when he’s completely unaffected.
Either way, behaviorists advise that you try to store your sadness on a shelf when you’re in direct contact with your surviving pet. Also, continue with his routines. It will help him realize that, despite a change in the pack population, nothing’s changed for him personally. Maintaining his usual structure will help him feel safe and secure. In fact, it’s perfectly fine to increase the activity for a while, if the dog is willing and able. Take him on more walks or car rides. Sticking close by your side will increase his sense of belonging and bonding. Increase his play time. Maybe groom him a bit more, give him a nice massage, teach him a new trick — anything to divert his attention (and yours) from the grief.
Resist the urge to run out and get another “replacement” pet right away, if at all. Give your dog (and you) a chance to adjust to the change, to cope with your emotions and make peace with the loss. Then, when and if you’ve decided to add another companion, be sure to choose one that’s compatible, personality-wise, and has no behavioural issues of his own. When you’ve found a new dog that seems a good fit, introduce him slowly to the remaining pet to gauge their reaction to each other. In fact, if they can go on a walk together beforehand (how about a play date?), that’s even better.
Once you’ve adopted the new guy and welcomed him into your home, never force the dogs to be best buds right away. Give both of them individual alone time with you, and never reduce the amount of affection and attention you usually show to your first dog. You don’t want him thinking you’re abandoning him for the new addition. Once they’re used to each other, take them on regular outings as a pack, and if all goes according to plan, your grieving dog will have a new companion he enjoys spending time with, and he’ll be more accepting of the loss of his old pal.
Don’t feel guilty if you decide not to get another dog. Some dogs are perfectly happy being an “only child”; they quite relish monopolizing your time and affection. And if the dogs really didn’t get along famously in the first place, it goes without saying the grieving process will be quick. The remaining dog could very well feel relief at not having to be constantly on guard because of a quiet rivalry you may not even have been aware of. Only you know the personality and temperament of your dog, so make the decision carefully.
Cats, on the other hand, are a whole other species, literally. Naturally aloof, the death of a pack or family member isn’t as “cat”aclysmic. But when the feline we sat last year died, the neighbour’s cat, who used to come over to play with him, definitely noticed his missing friend. He wandered the house, up and down the stairs, looking and meowing. He did this for about a week, then, when he realized Chester wasn’t coming back, he got over it. You could call it heartless, or you could call it healthy. He was able to overcome the stress of grief and move on. Oh, to be a cat.