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Pets Experience Grief Too

Posted by Barbara Mistele

Pets Experience Grief Too

I will always remember my hospice patient’s dog, Jack. Jack was a medium-sized, furry mutt, with all the friendliness of a well-loved and trained dog. My patient was a man who was deeply loved by family and friends... and his dog, Jack. 

As the patient was dying, Jack was lying awake with his head on his front legs, under the patient’s bed. The family told me Jack had been there over 24 hours and was refusing to come out to eat or drink. Jack and his human friend were inseparable in life. And Jack stayed there, under the patient’s bed, until the funeral home arrived.

Many of us who work in hospice care have experienced a dog or cat that won’t leave a patient’s bed ― or pets who looked to hospice staff for reassurance and comfort. 

In one household, April the cat, who always hid, (even from her owners) would run down the stairs and jump into my lap to be petted, every time I visited. The patient’s wife used to go on and on about how she couldn’t believe it. She had never seen April do this before. I think April was looking for comfort. I think of the boxer, Isabelle, who used to sit next to me and lean all her weight against me throughout the visit. I believe Isabelle was looking for comfort, too.

I could go on and on with examples of pets lying at my feet, lying in my lap, nudging my hand for a pat, walking around with tails down, leaning against me, and refusing to leave the dying patient.

The incidents with Jack and these other pets were very moving to me. They taught me that pets can be aware that someone is dying in the home and pets can grieve this loss, too. Since Jack, I make it a point to ask families how their pets are doing. Almost without exception, families report that the pets “know what is going on” and are showing signs of grieving. I think this is important.

Any pet therapist can tell you how much comfort, joy, and love a pet can usually bring. Most households with pets consider them to be part of the family. When pets are not doing well, the family worries.

As a social worker, it’s my job to look over the patient and family’s situation and provide support, grief counseling, education, resources and suggestions that would make things go more smoothly. So what can we do for grieving pets?

I think it helps patients and families just to know that their pet may be grieving, that this is common and normal. Being held, being petted, and given extra attention and access to the dying patient can bring comfort to our pets.

Ironically, these are just the things that bring comfort to pet owners, as well. People generally feel comforted and less lonely by comforting their pets. I think everyone benefits, when we let pets be a part of the hospice process.

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