CARING FOR A GRIEVING DOG Angela Garner (April 2023)
Coping after the death of a beloved canine companion is difficult enough, but what happens when our remaining dog finds it difficult to adjust to the loss as well? Various studies and anecdotal evidence shows that dogs can experience a form of grief. Also, most of us know how sensitive our dogs are, and that they pick up on our emotions and are affected by these too. Therefore, even if they aren’t mourning their canine companion, they may still be unsettled by the emotional distress that their bereaved guardian is going through.
To open up this area, I’d like to share an excerpt from the relevant chapter in my book, “When It’s Time to Say Goodbye –Preparing for the Transition of Your Beloved Pet”:
This is about a little dog whose guardian died suddenly and unexpectedly. It demonstrates the animal’s grief and reaction to the upset in the home:
“A few years ago when out with my dog, I regularly stopped to chat to an elderly gentleman who walked his Jack Russell terrier in the local park each day, where I often took my own canine companion. The dog was called Ruby as the gentleman and his wife had taken her in on their Ruby wedding anniversary nine years previously. Unfortunately, this gentleman suddenly became ill and died, leaving his disabled wife and his dog grieving sorely for him. Realising that the wife was unable to walk Ruby, I offered to regularly call in to pick her up and walk her with my own little terrier. The first thing I noticed was the look in Ruby’s eye – she looked incredibly sad and mournful and had lost her usual jaunty demeanour. I know it’s easy to put our perception of feelings on animals, but her behaviour had completely changed and she definitely seemed depressed or low. The situation wasn’t helped by the fact that the family didn’t want the elderly lady to keep Ruby because they thought the dog was too much trouble. The ‘trouble’ was escaping and making her own way to the park along the well-trodden path that she’d walked with her beloved guardian twice every day for over nine years. I did manage to catch her myself a couple of times and return her home safely but I could tell that this was one very unsettled and unhappy little dog. On reflection, I think Ruby was affected not only by losing one of her beloved owners, but also by the atmosphere in the home where she was no longer welcome by everyone in the family. I am happy to say that eventually she was taken into a new forever home by a kind neighbour, who cared for Ruby for the rest of her life, allowing her to regain the happiness she so deserved.”
Thankfully, this story had a happy ending, but initially I found it difficult to witness the sadness and distress in that dear little dog.
When caring for a bereaved dog, we need to be alert for any changes in the way they behave, such as:
- Their appetite isn’t as keen as usual
- They may be lethargic and not so interested or enthusiastic about playing or going for a walk
- Showing signs of feeling anxious – lip licking, whining, yawning, shaking, nervously looking around and maybe pacing
- Not sleeping or settling down at night as they normally would
- Not coping as well as they normally do when left on their own at home
- Grooming themselves a lot and licking their paws
- Seeking your attention more than normal
- Barking at things they used to ignore
One aspect to be aware of is that they may try to actively search for their companion, looking around the home, garden or when out on a walk, which is something to bear in mind if you let them off the lead when out walking.
While going through a period of adjustment following the loss of a companion animal or guardian is natural, if the bereaved pet’s behaviour changes suddenly and dramatically, or does not appear to settle down after a few days, they need to be checked by a vet. This is because there may be an underlying medical problem which coincides with the bereavement. To demonstrate this particular point, here’s another excerpt from my book:
“I recall an incident when a guardian asked me about their West Highland terrier who had suddenly become very reluctant to go on his walks following the death of her other little Westie. The lady said she assumed that her dog was mourning and asked if there was anything she could do to help him to overcome this. Having listened to everything she told me, I strongly recommended that she took the Westie to her vet because we couldn’t be sure there wasn’t something medical going on, which just happened to coincide with her other dog’s death. A week or two later I heard back from her and, sure enough, the vet had done a thorough check and discovered that the Westie had developed arthritis which was making it painful to walk. Once he was on medication he was able to enjoy his walks again.”
Other than extra cuddles and offering comfort when they seek us out, generally it is considered advisable not to suddenly start over-fussing a bereaved pet, and that it helps to maintain their usual routine so that everything is as stable and calm as possible. However, giving them their absolute favourite food and going to places that both we and our dog really enjoy can raise both human and canine spirits during this difficult time.
Finally, to say that I find it heartening to know that there is a deepening and increasing awareness within the world of canine behaviour and training about the emotional life of dogs, and how we can nurture and promote a feeling of safety and security for them. One excellent example is Canine Support https://www.caninesupport.co.uk/ where Katharine offers a whole host of options for knowledgeable, practical, caring and gentle yet effective support. From my own personal experience, her website is well-worth checking out.
SECURING A PET’S FUTURE BEYOND YOUR LIFE Angela Garner (June 2022)
Thinking about death can still be a taboo subject, and worrying about what would happen to beloved pets in the event of one’s death is also difficult for some people. Traumatic news such as being diagnosed with a serious illness, or advancing old age will sometimes bring such thoughts into focus, but does it make sense to consider this issue while you’re fit and well so that your pet’s future is secure should the unexpected happen? I first thought about this when I took on the care of a young grey parrot. Even though I was only in my thirties, research into parrot care revealed that my new avian companion could well outlive me! So I looked into what I could put in place to guarantee the bird’s care should I die before him, and since then I’ve done the same with all our pets.
Some people are fortunate enough to have the reassurance that their family would take on a pet if necessary. However, sadly, I have come across cases where things haven’t worked out in such circumstances, leaving the cherished pet of a deceased guardian in a vulnerable situation. Whatever you decide, it makes sense to keep a clear note of your pet’s daily needs, their likes and dislikes and your vet’s contact details in an easy-to-find place in the house.
If this securing your pet’s future is something you wish to do, there are a number of UK charities which offer a scheme to ensure that your pet will be entrusted into their care should you die before them. Some organisations have specific criteria and may not accept a pet because of certain issues, but other charities may well be more flexible. Generally you will need to include your wishes in your Will or to add a Codicil, but as the charity concerned will most likely advise you on the relevant wording to use, this is straightforward.
Below are some organisations which offer a scheme at the time of writing this blog:
The Cinnamon Trust (CT) – has two homely sanctuaries and a national network of volunteers who kindly volunteer to foster on a long or short term basis. The pets who come into the charity’s care remain the organisation’s responsibility for the rest of their lives whether they go to a foster home or are placed in one of their two lovely sanctuaries. They take mostly cats and dogs, and you will have needed to have had the pet for at least six months before you register them, giving you a chance to build up a clear picture of your pet’s particular needs. They require that your Will states the intention for any pets you have to go to the CT in the event of your death, and they provide the simple wording for this to be included or added as a Codicil. The charity also offers support in other ways to help older or terminally ill people keep their pets at home as long as possible: https://cinnamon.org.uk/
The Blue Cross – run a scheme called, ‘Pet Peace of Mind – love and care for your pet after you’ve gone’. You can register up to four pets, which could be a dog, cat, horse, rabbit, chinchilla, degu, gerbil, guinea pig, hamster, mouse or rat. Their Welcome Pack also gives information on what to include in your Will. There is a lot of helpful information on their website covering many questions which you may have: https://www.bluecross.org.uk/pet-peace-of-mind
The RSPCA runs a ‘Home for Life’ scheme. They will take on most pet breeds. Animals will be taken to the nearest RSPCA shelter and assessed for the purpose of finding them a new home: www.homeforlife.org.uk
Cats Protection can look after your cat in the event of your death. They can also provide Emergency Cat Care Cards for pet owners to carry to alert emergency services that you have a pet that will need to be taken care of should you be taken ill. Their legacy pack can be requested via this link: https://www.cats.org.uk/what-we-do/catguardians/catguardians-qanda
The Dogs Trust has a Canine Care Card scheme which means if you pass away or become seriously ill and you’re no longer able to look after your dog, they will be taken care of by the Trust who will look for a suitable new home: https://www.dogstrust.org.uk/help-advice/dog-care/canine-care-card
Redwings Horse Sanctuary run a ‘Home in the Event of Death’ scheme, which means you can secure your horse’s future should anything unforeseen occur. There isn’t much information on this on their website so you would have to get in contact with them to find out more: https://www.redwings.org.uk/can-i-leave-you-my-horse-my-will
Here are a few more things to think about once you have put your plans in place with your chosen organisation:
- Let your family, friends and the Executor of your Will know that you’ve registered your pet with the charity, and where the relevant documents are kept.
- If you can, arrange for the temporary care of any pets by someone you trust and who could access them without delay until the pets can be transported into the care of the relevant organisation.
- Keep a note in your purse or phone to show you have pets and who needs to be contacted in the event of an accident or sudden serious illness.
- Remember to update the charity with any changes in your pet’s day to day care.
In my experience of doing this for various pets over the years it doesn’t take much time and effort, but it brings a long-lasting peace of mind knowing that a beloved companion animal’s welfare will be secured should the unexpected happen.
PET BEREAVEMENT SUPPORT ACTIVITIES IN 2021 Angela Garner (Jan 2022)
It was a busy and I must admit, at times stressful, year with having two new books published and doing a flurry of interviews on the radio, podcasts or video! The interviews are available on my Updates & Events page but here is one of my favourites – I was a speaker at the April 2021: Animal Communicator and Healer Summit (just over 30 mins long): https://youtu.be/M40WZVz-BH8
It has been heartening to create new pathways out into the world to help people and their pets through the difficulties that invariably surround the end of a companion animal’s life. Those of us who have been through it know what a roller-coaster it is. We need support, we need to be understood, we need to be heard and we need sensitive guidance to help us do our best for the beloved pet who has shared our lives – all the while nursing a broken heart and facing uncertainty.
Both of the new books:
- ‘When It’s Time to Say Goodbye – Preparing for the Transition of Your Beloved Pet’ (for guardians)
- ‘Companion Animal Bereavement – A One Health Workbook for Veterinary Professionals’ (for vet and animal welfare staff)
…include a strong focus on the welfare of companion animals during anticipated loss. Here’s a snippet from a professional review written about the veterinary book which highlights the importance of this aspect:
“One of the essential elements of this book, and perhaps the most refreshing and important, is the complete focus it has on the mental landscapes and lives of our companion animals themselves. Animals are always mutual partners in this journey, never playing second-fiddle to the bereavement process of humans, but always placed firmly on the same footing when it comes to the decisions made about end-of-life planning.” Andrew Perry – Animal Behaviour and Welfare (BSc), Anthrozoology (MSc)
As an example of protecting the animal’s welfare, I’m sharing a brief extract about an issue that can arise when caring for an elderly pet. This is from one of the downloadable resources available to vet teams to hand out to guardians in ‘Companion Animal Bereavement – A One Health Workbook for Veterinary Professionals’ (Ch 3, p 24):
“If you are caring for an elderly pet, you may notice symptoms which you assume are due to old age. However, it is important not to dismiss these because, even if they are related to ageing, they most likely will indicate a medical condition which requires diagnosis and treatment by your vet.”
It can be incredibly stressful for guardians as they navigate many unknown factors and face the inevitable death of their much loved pet. As it says in ‘When It’s Time to Say Goodbye – Preparing for the Transition of Your Beloved’ (Ch 6, p 42):
“Try to be aware of your stress levels, and remember that, as the carer, you also need to receive care. If you have friends or family who understand that you’re going through a difficult time, allow yourself to accept their love, support, and, where appropriate, practical assistance. If you aren’t able to draw upon others in this way, there are some excellent organisations that offer a listening ear, understanding and support to people before and after loss. No-one has to go through this alone.”
In addition to the available publications and recordings on this site, there is also a wide range of resources available to download from the EASE website: https://ease-animals.org.uk/pet-loss-support/
‘WHEN A DOG DIES, HOW SOON IS TOO SOON TO GET ANOTHER?’ Angela Garner (Oct 2021)
“Dogs’ lives are too short. Their only fault, really.”
(Quote courtesy of: Agnes Sligh Turnbull. AZQuotes.com, Wind and Fly LTD, 2021. https://www.azquotes.com/author/39426-Agnes_Sligh_Turnbull, accessed September 15, 2021.)
The loss of a pet can be tough. So, what happens when a beloved dog dies? Suddenly the owner faces a chasm of emptiness in the home – the unused bed, redundant toys, vacant space where the food and water bowls were. The list is endless, the grief overwhelming. Having so much love to offer and no recipient is incredibly difficult.
It’s no surprise that some people can’t bear it, and are desperate to ‘fill the gap’ as soon as possible. Alf Wight, famously known as James Herriot, advocated getting another dog without delay:
But how wise is this? I’ve known it to work for some, but for others getting a new dog too soon can cause problems. This invariably impacts on the animal, who is trying to adjust to a completely new circumstance. Should the despairing owner seek a new companion straight away or should they take time to work through their grief before considering such a commitment? Let’s look at some pros and cons:
- Having a new dog to love and cherish can prevent loneliness. This is particularly poignant for someone living alone who has just lost their sole companion.
- A dog can bring a purpose and structure to the owner’s day and even to their life – something which is very much missed after a loss.
- There are increasing numbers of dogs needing experienced new homes, which could be offered by a bereaved owner. UK shelters are concerned about the number of ‘lockdown puppies’ being abandoned as owners return to work or struggle with the challenges in behaviour that adolescence can bring, or separation anxiety as the youngsters haven’t adapted to being at home alone: https://www.rspca.org.uk/-/blog-meet-the-unwanted-lockdown-puppies
- The Covid-19 pandemic has seen a rise in mental health issues. Grief may exacerbate such conditions, and adopting a new dog can bring benefits to its new owner: (https://www.helpguide.org/articles/mental-health/mood-boosting-power-of-dogs.htm
- Grief can lower one’s tolerances, energy levels and resilience. Suddenly having a new ‘bundle of joy’ after years of the comfortable familiarity of caring for an elderly dog can be a shock. It’s easy to forget how much time and effort it takes to look after a puppy.
- Similarly, adopting a rescue dog can be rewarding, but again, it is likely to need a lot of time, attention and understanding, especially if it has behavioural issues.
- The owner might find it difficult to bond with a new pet. Moving from years of comfortable companionship, in which both owner and canine knew and understood each other’s many little ways, into new and unchartered territory, is likely to be challenging and stressful.
- As a canine behaviourist explained to me recently, if the owner is still deeply grieving they might shower the new dog with love and affection and not focus on giving the necessary basic training that the animal needs. This can lead to behavioural issues which will affect both the owner and the dog.
- Rushing into adopting or buying a pet means they might not give themselves time to ‘find the one’ – a special dog that feels right.
“How long should I wait after the loss of a pet?”
There is no straightforward and easy answer to how long an owner should wait after the death of their dog. Each situation is unique. However, the following ideas and suggestions could help a grieving owner to think things through:
- Would the owner benefit from taking time out from caring for a dog? There may be things they need or want to do which they weren’t able to before, such as travelling or taking a long awaited holiday.
- Have their personal circumstances changed over recent years making it more difficult to meet the needs of caring for a dog? (Time, money, personal health and current commitments, for example.)
- Is the owner likely to move home or have work done inside the house in the near future? Clearly, it would be far safer and kinder to bring a new pet into a calm and safe environment.
- Is a dog still the best type of pet for the owner’s lifestyle, age and stage in life?
- Would the owner prefer to offer long or short-term fostering for dogs through a supportive charitable organisation? This would bring the benefits of caring for a dog with the option to permanently adopt later on.
- Is everyone in the family agreed that they are ready and want to commit to another dog?
- Does the owner have other animals to consider before taking on a new dog? For example, their previous dog may not have presented a threat to small ‘furries’ or birds, but a new one might view them as prey.
- Does the owner honestly feel emotionally ready for the ‘settling-in’ period that any new dog will need?
There is no definitive answer as to how long an owner should or shouldn’t wait before getting a new dog after a loss. However, it is clear that thinking things through in a considered way, rather than deciding on the back of an emotional reaction, will benefit both person and any new companion who they take into their heart and home.