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Do pets grieve?
SOMEONE WHO has difficulty understanding how a person can mourn the loss of an animal must find it impossible to believe that an animal would mourn the loss of a human. Yet evidence suggests that animals do grieve, not only for their own kind but for others as well.
The classic case in point is Greyfriars Bobby, the Skye terrier who refused to leave his master's grave. As the story goes, John Gray's faithful companion kept his post in the old Greyfriars Churchyard in Edinburgh, Scotland, for 14 years, leaving only for his midday meal, until his own death in 1872.
Closer to home, tales of animal grief are less well-known. Unlike Bobby's story, Eleanor Atkinson has not immortalized them in children's books and Walt Disney has not celebrated them in movies. Still, the stories shared by Tail End readers are just as poignant. But are they really evidence of grief?
Yes, says Harriet Cuddy, a pet-loss grief counselor and facilitator of the St. Louis Pet Loss Support Group (for information, call 636-537-2322, Ext. 28, or go to
www.petropolis.com). "One of the things we love about our pets is that they love us unconditionally, and we become their world. When a loss occurs, the emotional upheaval can be as difficult for them as it is for us," she says.
"Pets do display signs of grieving, some noticeable, some more subtle. They may go off their food. They may isolate themselves, become lethargic or whine constantly. I remember when my mother passed away, my little dog, who was very close to her, went around the house crying. She was looking for her and couldn't find her. She knew there had been a change in the family structure, and she didn't understand."
After Colleen Fann's mother passed away, Fann took over the care of her mother's dog, who soon "showed signs of deep depression." She lost interest in eating and in cuddling. "Her days and many nights were spent wandering through the house like she was searching for someone," says Fann, who lives in O'Fallon, Mo. "Her fur began to fall out in large sections, and she would tuck herself away in a far room in the basement and sleep for many hours at a time. The vet told us that animals experience grief like we do, and she obviously was heartbroken at the loss of her beloved caretaker."
Susan Dinehart of Ballwin has a dog, Jesse, who exhibited sadness when her son, Sam, died. The school bus had picked Sam up in front of the house every morning at 7:30 and dropped him off every afternoon at 3. For two weeks after Sam's death, "Jesse sat in the window at 7:30 and 3 and howled. It was heartbreaking," Dinehart says.
Mark Primerano of Ballwin recalled an event from 1956, when he was a monk in a Franciscan monastery 35 miles west of St. Louis. The founding monk had found a small dog in the woods 16 years earlier, and the two had become inseparable. When the old monk became ill and lay semiconscious in his room, the dog kept a constant vigil outside the window.
"On the fifth day, I suddenly heard Browny howling in a low, pitiful moan," Primerano says. "Looking from my window, I saw Browny slowly walking toward the woods, his head hung low."
As Primerano started after the dog, he learned that the old monk had just passed away. He continued on his mission but failed to find the dog. Nor did he find him the next day. Or the next. "In my heart, I believe this faithful pet knew his beloved master had died," Primerano says. "Devoted in life, I believe Browny preferred to go off and die than to go on living without his master."
Some weeks later Primerano discovered Browny's lifeless body lying near a creek. "Very often I wondered if this was the very spot he was found and became a loved pet in our community some 16 years earlier," Primerano says.
Patricia DeMarco of Cuba, Mo., says that after her father died, his poodle "situated herself in my dad's recliner and wouldn't budge. The only time she left that chair was to go outside to go to the bathroom or to get a little to eat and drink. Her appetite dwindled, she wouldn't play, didn't want to sit with anyone else - just stayed there in my dad's chair. It was obvious she was grieving for her buddy, and it took her about three months before she came around."
Shadow took even longer. The cat went into mourning after the death of Saranne Emery's grandfather. She refused to leave her carrier for three days. Then she went to the basement and stayed there. "Approximately one year to the day after my grandfather's death, Shadow came upstairs and has since roamed the house like the rest of the pets," Emery says.
Patti West of Vandalia, Ill., notes that when her father died, the Labrador retriever he had rescued years before "would go from room to room looking for him." After much consideration, the family took the dog to the funeral home on visitation day. She walked straight to the casket and sniffed. From then on, West says, "Millie didn't have to look anymore." She had found her friend. Then, "Millie and Mom became companions," West says, and "helped each other through the grieving process."
Sometimes a pet who is grieving will engage in behaviors that are not typical, Cuddy says. "People need to remember that the pet's world has been turned upside down, and it's really important to be patient with them."
Buddy, for example, began soiling in the house. When his veterinarian ruled out a physical problem, he asked about changes in Buddy's life. "My daughter told him about my husband's death and how close he and Buddy were," said Donna Mast of Maryland Heights. "He confirmed our suspicions and said that only time and a lot of love and attention would take care of the problem." They did, but it took awhile. And "there is still sadness on Buddy's face after almost two years when he comes to my house," Mast says. "We think he is still looking and hoping that 'Grandpa' will be there."
After her husband died, Barb Hollingsworth of Chesterfield tried everything to comfort his black schipperke, Little Bit. She "would whine and cry and wander the house, constantly looking for Scott," Hollingsworth says. "I tried various things to comfort her or redirect her thoughts, but it never worked. Her mourning the loss of Scott was very real."
Hollingsworth's solution was to find Little Bit a new home with a family who had a male schipperke. "There is no doubt," she says, "that animals who have been loved and cared for will grieve the loss of a human."
Or of a nonhuman.
Karen Kulberg of Ste. Genevieve, Mo., says that Muffin, a cat, "mourned the passing of our dog, Fritz, who had been his special friend." Fritz had carried Muffin in his mouth when Muffin was a kitten and would let him sit on his back when Muffin became an oversized cat. When Fritz died, Muffin "seemed subdued." He began sleeping under the bed, where Fritz had slept. Then Kulberg "began to notice that some of Fritz's toys were missing, along with some of our gloves, hats and other small clothing items." When she vacuumed under the bed, she found the dog toys and all the other missing items "piled together in exactly the spot where Fritz had been accustomed to sleeping. Muffin had gathered these items together to form what was evidently a memorial to his friend," Kulberg says.
A Siamese cat named Coco goes to the parlor every night and calls for her feline friend, Bobby, a year after Bobby's death, says Sandi Fortner of Hamburg, Ill. Coco's call is "almost like singing and very loud." She used to call Bobby for hours at a time, Fortner says, but now she "only sings for about a half-hour every night."
Some psychologists have suggested that when a pet loses someone close, it may begin to fear that it will lose other members of the family as well. Anne Cashel of St. Ann would agree with that. Her 7-year-old beagle, Lizzy, "has lost an owner and two other loved ones over the last four or five years," Cashel says. Her vet told her that Lizzy is grieving and will take time to heal.
Lizzy doesn't want to be left alone now, Cashel says. She thinks "that Lizzy has separation anxiety and that she's afraid now that if someone leaves her, they won't come back, either," she says.
Cashel says that if they try to leave her in the house, "she scratches and scratches at the door, and leaves indentations in the wood."
They have kenneled her for short periods, but when they recorded her when they were gone, she made "heartbroken howls that sounded like wailing the entire time," Cashel says.
At the opposite extreme is the blue front Amazon parrot that belonged to Rebecca Grindler's father. The breed "is one of the top talkers," Grindler said. Yet when her father died two summers ago, "the crazy bird didn't speak to anyone for months," Grindler says.
Reporter Sarah Casey Newman
IF your pet is grieving ...
ANIMALS ARE individuals, just as people are. Each grieves in its own way. Because signs of grieving can be subtle, we cannot always know when, or if, their mourning ends.
Patience and love are the most important things you can give an animal who is in mourning, says Harriet Cuddy, facilitator of the St. Louis Pet Loss Support Group. But often professional help may be needed.
Veterinarians who understand pet grief can help both grieving pets and their caregivers. They can provide important insight, recommend courses of action and provide individualized treatments, which in some cases may involve medication. It is not always easy, and it is not always successful. Some animals simply give up on life. And yet ...
A cat named Mitzi went into deep depression after the death of her elderly companion, the only companion she had ever known. She required not only unrelenting patience from her new caregivers but also months of medical care, complete with round-the-clock force feeding, to save her life. She is healthy and happy today in her new home in south St. Louis County.
- Sarah Casey Newman