Help for my grieving pet

-A A +A
By Dr. Ernie Ward, Veterinarian

 Sandy, my beloved almost 15-year-old beach mutt, recently passed away after battling kidney disease. My 6-year-old Border terrier, Harry, has lived his entire life with Sandy and is struggling with the loss. I thought I’d share with you the advice I’ve dispensed for decades and strategies I’m using with Harry to ease his pain.  


Tincture of time

Without a doubt, time helps heal a wounded heart. Ask anyone who has lost a close family member (including me) and they’ll likely tell you that while you may never fully recover, the passage of time makes the loss more bearable. In my clinical experience, the same is true for our pets. The first two weeks seem to be the worst. Searching and sniffing the house and yard for the recently departed is common. Many dogs will pant, pace, drool and whine almost incessantly or without provocation. Some pets will refuse food and water for several days following the death of a human or animal family member. They may sleep more, hide in unusual places and refuse to play. It’s agonizing to watch a pet go through this normal phase of healing. 


Stress-relieving activities and exercise

The best thing you can do is be there. Take extra walks, spend additional time cuddling on the couch, snuggle a little longer in the bed. Offer favored treats and food, visit a different park or hike a new trail. Exercise is the best antidepressant and stress reliever for both humans and animals. If the symptoms persist beyond two weeks or fail to lessen, your pet is probably becoming clinically depressed and needs veterinary assistance.


Treating depression

Dogs and cats may develop a form of depression following the loss of a human or animal companion. My best advice is don’t wait too long before seeking professional help. If you’re increasingly uncomfortable with your pet’s attitude and behavior after two weeks, see your veterinarian. Veterinarians have many medications that can help your pet cope with loss. I’ve prescribed various antidepressants along with plenty of exercise with successful outcomes. I also recommend pheromones, L-theanine, colostrum calming complex, melatonin and Bach flower essences for grieving dogs. Most pets can be successfully treated with a combination of natural remedies, prescription medications and plenty of low-impact aerobic exercise. I’ve found that after one to two months of therapy, the majority of patients can begin resuming normal activities. I think they still long for their lost loved one, but they’re better able to cope with daily life.     


Don’t delay

My biggest concern for grieving pets is something called decompensation. Many pets with intense animal-animal bonds are older, placing them at risk for undiagnosed, underlying age-related disorders. The stress and anxiety associated with depression can push a borderline failing organ system over the edge and into life-threatening crisis. I’ve diagnosed too many older pets with heart failure, kidney disease, high blood pressure and more a month or two after experiencing a loss. I attribute it to the effects of chronic stress. Even if your pet isn’t showing severe signs of grief and depression, if they’re not back to (nearly) normal within a couple of weeks, have your veterinarian check them out. A few simple blood and urine tests and a thorough physical exam can uncover any emerging condition before it’s too late.


Grief hurts everybody

Grief affects the entire human and animal family. Healing takes time and effort, and some pets (and people) may benefit from medical treatment. Overcoming grief isn’t something you “tough out” — it’s something you try to survive. It’s not weak or abnormal if you or your pet needs help. Grieving is natural, normal, and it hurts.

Ultimately, our shared goal is to restore health and happiness to our animal companions. And take solace from someone who’s been there: It gets better. Maybe not as quickly as you’d like, but it does.


Dr. Ernie Ward, “America’s Pet Advocate,” is an award-winning veterinarian, author and media personality. He can be reached through DrErnieWard.com.