How to Help a Pet Who Has Lost ‘Their Person’

After the death of Queen Elizabeth II, animal lovers worried about the state of her beloved corgis. The dogs now live with her son Prince Andrew, but the situation reminded us of the close relationship we have with our pets in life and beyond.

The loyalty of pets who’ve lost a human caregiver is legendary. Whether it is the story of Greyfriars Bobby, a dog who is said to have spent 14 years guarding his owner’s grave in Edinburgh, Scotland, or Hachiko, who visited the Shibuya train station in Tokyo every day for 10 years after his owner’s death, there’s no denying the stories’ pull on the human heart.

And while there is a debate about whether animals grieve as humans do, few disagree that a change in a routine can be difficult for pets who lose their caretaker.

According to Dr. Erik Olstad, an assistant professor at UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, this is more obvious with dogs than cats, but with any pet, there can be distress with change and it is a question that comes up frequently, he explained.

“Dogs are social creatures. I bet when the loss of a member happens, something goes on other than ‘nothing,’ but what that something is, we would have to then attribute human emotions to an animal and that starts to get touchy,” he shared.

Olstad says that new caregivers can help a pet that’s transitioning into a different routine or household by offering them as much consistency as possible.

“I would really try and figure out that pet’s routine and adhere to it. What was that animal eating beforehand? Let’s do some things we know this dog or cat likes to do. That’s what we do as humans, right? When we’re depressed, sometimes it feels good to go out for a walk, or to eat a meal that you are familiar with or hang out with people that you are familiar with. I would try to do those same things for that animal,” Olstad explained.

Cats are territorial, says Dr. Katie Domann, a consulting veterinarian for Pet Peace of Mind. So, if you are bringing one into a home with another cat, the new cat will need its own space, she explains. “As with people, cats choose their own friends or social groups.” She also recommends having plenty of supplies on hand and taking them to a veterinarian before bringing them home.

Olstad says the most common concern he’s heard after the death of a caregiver is a loss of appetite. If possible, he says you can bring the pet’s dish to the new home and continue feeding and other activities on the same schedule as before. Bringing a favorite bed or a piece of the former caregiver’s clothing to the new home can be useful.

Every pet is different, Olstad says, but if your dog or cat starts exhibiting destructive or anxious behavior like pacing, chewing, barking or obsessive licking of the paws, an animal behaviorist or your veterinarian may be able to help.

Olstad says knowing that some pets live for decades, he also recommends that people write their wishes down for their pet’s care. “Most people don’t want their pet to wind up at a shelter after they pass. So to have a succession plan is really, really smart to do.”

Pet Peace of Mind’s founder and president Dianne McGill told Next Avenue that conversations should begin early. “Talk to your family about the type of care you want for your pets. That discussion should be made early on before you’re sick and can’t care for your pet. It’s the best thing you can do for [them].”

Photo: Andrew Santellan

Many organizations help find new homes for pets who have lost their caregiver. Among them are Pet Peace of Mind and Friends Forever. My Grandfather’s Cat is another similar charity in Canada.

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