Dr. Stephanie LaFarge, ASPCA Senior Director of Counseling ServicesFebruary 8, 2008
As every pet parent knows, the human-animal bond is a unique relationship with its own set of joys and heartbreaks. From resolving a roommate’s hostility toward a cat to grieving the loss of a beloved dog, guardians often find themselves facing challenging questions about their pets’and their ownwell-being. In February 2008, we invited the ASPCA’s Dr. Stephanie LaFarge, a psychologist who specializes in human-animal relationships and grief counseling, to answer some of your questions on our online community.
Is it possible to help a grieving animal? If a human or animal member of a household dies, how can we help the animal living in that household?
This is a very important question. As owners, we’re watchful of the well-being of our pets. It’s normal for companion animals to grieve for each other. They may search, cry or eat less for several days. These behaviors are normal. You can help by providing extra attention, but try not to interfere with their searching or crying. It is their way of grieving. It is especially helpful if the remaining pets can see the dead body of the animal who has died. If after several days your pet does not seem better, consult with your vet in case there is another cause of his distress.
Nature has provided all animals with the capacity to grieve and recover. Animals understand death and know how to move on. Their lives in the wild depend on it. Sometimes we confuse our own distress with that of the pet. Your pet may be slightly distressed by your change in behavior, so it is good to continue with normal activities like taking walks with your dog or spending time with your cat.
My sister's husband does not care for their dogs. He liked the dogs when they were younger, but now he’s constantly picking fights with my sister and giving her an ultimatumeither the dogs go or he does. She’s asking my advice, and I want to try to help the situation. They are beautiful dogs who have lived with them for more than seven years. I don't understand his behavior.
You are right to be very distressed about this situation. Not only is the marriage at risk, but so are the dogs. Often pets become stand-ins for other tensions in a relationship. It appears to be about the dogs, but it may be about other aspects of the relationship. It is possible that your sister's husband has other issues like depression or job anxiety that cause him to appear more tense and irritable at home. He may mistakenly feel that the dogs are a safe target. Since threatening your spouse with an ultimatum is never an appropriate way to handle a problem, I strongly suggest she ask her husband to participate in either counseling or mediation with an outsider to settle the problem. If the dogs are the only problem, it will take one or two sessions to resolve the issue. She may learn that her husband is actually afraid to watch the dogs age and wants to avoid that difficult process by getting rid of them now. In other words, there are many reasons for his response. She needs to get more information with the help of a neutral person.
When my dog was a puppy, I lived with my parents. Of course, it was also the time when my dog was going through her chewing stage. She had a very bad habit of jumping on things. For example, she jumped on top of my grandfather’s truck, which cost about $4,000 worth of damage. Ever since, my dad can't stand my dog, and he’s always telling me to get rid of her and that she’s stupid! She’s very well-trained. I can take my dog to the park and she stays right by my kids. I've never had a dog like my Roguie. My dad’s dogs, on the other hand, don't listen, and they run away. What would be the best thing for me to do or say when my dad starts criticizing my dog? We’ve had many fights about my dog, and it seems like he would've realized by now that my dog is one of my kids, and I can't just get rid of her.
It sounds like your dad likes to get your attentioneven in such a negative way as a fight. It will take a lot of discipline on your part to refuse to have this fight with him about the dog. You and he have very different styles of dog rearing, and you will probably never see eye-to-eye on how to treat a dog. You should ask yourself: Do I need him to like and respect my dog as much as I do? Do I still feel guilty about what happened when my dog was a puppy? If I weren’t fighting with my dad about the dogs, would we be fighting about something else? Once you are satisfied that you’re not contributing to keeping this fight going, tell him you don't want to argue about the dog anymore. Offer him one last apology for the puppy’s damage and then ask him if he is willing to not discuss the dog anymore. He may not agree right away, but you can walk away from the discussion without being rude, and eventually the fighting will stop. It does take two to make a fight. It is not good for your kids to witness this kind of ongoing tension between their mother and their grandfather.
In a few months, I am getting married. I have two wonderful Labs (five and six years of age) who will be moving with me to our new home. How can I help them adapt to the new environment? My future husband does not love dogs as I do and has asked that they not get on the furniture. I am willing to compromise but also don't want my dogs to be confused by the new rules. They’re already leaving behind another dog, two cats, a larger backyard and free run of the entire house. How can I make this transition as easy on them as possible, while keeping the peace with my new spouse?
You have two jobs ahead of you, and it sounds like you have just the right attitude to succeed. Regarding the dogs, I suggest you consult with our Animal Behavior Department for some suggestions about helping them adjust to a new set of rules. Clearly you will have to set aside some time and energy so they won't feel neglected and will feel that this new home is a place with lots of rewards in it for them. Just because they can't be on the couch doesn't mean they can't thrive in this new home with perhaps more long walks and playtime with you.
Regarding your other 'job'newly married spousethis will also take lots of patience and a positive attitude. Start by taking the pressure off your husband to love the dogs as much as you do. Try not to judge him on his behavior toward the dogs (assuming he is not abusive). You may wish he would spontaneously show more affection, and that may come later. For now, show him that you are willing to compromise, as you said, on the ground rules. Start by encouraging positive interactions, like throwing a ball or feeding very special treats. If the dogs expect good things from him, he may start to respond to them. We know the power of a dog's happy greeting and positive expectations. There will be times when he sees you seek comfort and contact with your dogs. You don't intend to shut him out, but he may feel that way. Your husband will need more specific reassurance than the dogs that you love him very much. The dogs already know how you feel about them. Even though you will soon be married, they won't feel any less loved by you.
I have to ask this question that has been lingering in the back of my mind. I am a happily married, 38-year-old woman who has always loved animals. While other girls were dreaming of weddings and babies, I dreamed of having a farm. I have been with my husband for 21 years, and we made the decision to not have children, and we live with ten rescue dogs of all ages, breeds, sizes and colors. They are like our children, very well-cared for and loved, and are a big part of our lives. I realize having ten dogs seems extreme, but I can’t imagine my life without them. My mom thinks I’m trying to fill some kind of void and, although I wholeheartedly disagree, her comment still irks me. I would like to finally put it to rest. Thank you very much!
I and many others can relate to the choices you’ve made in your life. You are to be congratulated for finding a partner who shares your values and lifestyle. Unfortunately, with any choice we make, there is usually a lingering doubt about the consequences. It is normal to ask yourself: What would my life be like if I had children and dogs? If your mother's concern is with the number of dogs you have, you can reassure her that the only way to judge the right number of animals for a household is the ability of that household to take care of the animals. You are obviously doing a wonderful job. It is possible that your mother’s comment, which she may have meant to be “helpful” but was quite hurtful, stems from something she is missing, such as a grandchild. You don’t have to discuss this with her, but you do need to remind yourself that you are the best judge of your motivation. Every time you look at your dogs, I’m sure you are comforted.
Last year, my cat had surgery and was very weak afterwards. It looked like she wasn't going to make it, and the vet wanted to keep her in the hospital for a few more days. But my husband and I decided to bring her home. We figured if she was going to die, she should spend a few last days with Bruce (her brother, my other cat) and us.
Well, as soon as she got home, she started eating! Gone was the howling she had done at the vet! She and her brother had a big reunion, licking each other all over. Bruce took excellent care of her and actually stood watch over her!! Within a week she gained weight and now, a year later, is perfectly fine, and our little family is complete!
I know you can't exactly tell me that coming home saved her, but is it a possibility? From your experience, how much of a factor is emotional/mental health in healing?
What a wonderful story that proves how little science knows about the power of relationships to foster healing. I am a psychologist and not a vet, but we have all seen examples of your story. The vet was right to be cautious and to think that in an emergency, he or she would want the cat in the hospital. However, since you, as owners, were willing to take responsibility for the outcome, it was right that she had a chance to come home. If the cat had died, I personally prefer to have that occur at home whenever possible. While it is terrific that your choice seemed to help your cat survive and thrive, just remember that you will not always be able to “work this miracle.” When it is time for the cat to die, I support your desire to be in control of the circumstances and to find ways to reduce sufferingjust as you did.
My dog, Bella, is a two-year-old female pit bull mix. I recently put her canine companion to sleep, and we both mourned deeply but have since made peace. However, Bella previously looked to her companion for cues about how to respond to most situations. I've worked on socializing her, and she's doing much better in public, but she’s very protective of our home. I live alone, and spend the majority of my time studying as a pre-vet student, so she's not used to a lot of company. When I do have someone over, she is obviously scared and upset, and I have to keep her isolated for fear she'll bite. (She gets incredibly upset if someone goes towards her or makes a move to touch me.) Is there any way to let her stay protective of her territory, but let her know that company is not an appropriate target? I don't want to confuse her, but I hate excluding or frightening her. Any tips on how to handle this situation would be greatly appreciated!
You are a wonderful observer of your dog's behavior, which will enhance your performance as a vet. Since this is a complex behavior problem with big consequences for your dog, I urge you to consult with a behaviorist. Not only will it help your dog, but you can gain experience that will come in handy when you are working with clients.
My boyfriend and I are moving in together and toward marriage. We both get along with each other's cats, which is great! Our biggest concern is how the cats will react to each other. We've read about introducing cats and plan to follow certain steps, but I'm terrified that it might not work. Do you know how often those techniques are successful? What do we do if my fear-prone boy won't stop hissing at or even fighting with my boyfriend's cat, or vice versa? They're young and will hopefully live at least ten more years! I don't want my shy boy to be anxiety-ridden or starting fights for the rest of his life.
Congratulations on working so hard to prepare your cats for this transition. You can always get more professional advice from the ASPCA behaviorists regarding specific techniques. I’m more qualified to address the issue with your boyfriend. Since you both want the cats to be comfortable, but you can't control their reactions completely, I encourage you to be very honest with each other about the stress this issue may put on your relationship. There will be a tendency to blame each other and to worry about how the other person is feeling when you see the cats’ distress. Try to not let the cats’ adjustment issues become a focus of your relationship. Make sure you pay attention to each other separate from what the cats require.
How can you explain the fact that animals who love each other often die within a very short span of time? My mother put one cat to sleep, and her other cat died three days later. Is this a coincidence or is there something more to it? I think it happens with people, too.
This is a very interesting observation. The issue has been studied in humans quite a bit. For example, approximately 70% of the elderly die within a few days of a birthday. To my knowledge, these patterns have not been studied in animals. The ASPCA did a study that demonstrated that companion animals do grieve for each other but rarely, if ever, die from grief. What does occur is a pet parent may be so focused on the terminally ill animal that they don’t notice that the other animal is also weakening. This happens especially when the pets are close in age. In any case, it is wise to pay a lot of attention to the remaining pets whenever there is a death in the family.
I’ve been thinking of becoming a volunteersomething that involves offering support to people and animals. What background or training is necessary to become a bereavement counselor? I'm thinking more along the lines of offering counseling over the phone.
There are several online training programs you can investigate. Also contact the Association of Pet Loss and Bereavement (APLB) for information. I suggest you get experience on a hotline for grief issues even for humans, which will apply to work with pet loss. Welcome aboard. It is a great field.
How can I convince my parents to keep my two dogs inside during cold weather? Are dogs smarter than humans?
You may have to ask your vet to speak with your parents about keeping the dogs in the house. If the vet can't convince your parents that the dogs are suffering outside, you probably can't change their minds. You may have to wait until you have a home of your own to treat your dogs the way you want to.
The great thing about nature is that each animal has evolved to be as smart as he needs to be for his environment. If you’re measuring a dog's intelligence using a human measure, they rank about the same as a two- or three-year-old child. However, they have many more capacities than human beings to help them survive, like a better sense of direction, better sense of smell, etc. Humans bred dogs to respond to training, so enjoy developing your dog's ability to listen to you. Then you will both be smart!
Penelope the dachshund is my daughter's dog, but she is very attached to me. If my daughter moves out and takes Penelope with her, will she be sad? I know I will. Every time I go away, I miss my pets terribly. I wonder if they do, too!
Companion animals are amazing, as you have observed. When they’re separated from their humans, they can be fine but still show how overjoyed they are when you have a reunion. As far as we know, pets can miss people but still thrive. An important question for you is: How will I handle missing the creatures I love, both dog and daughter? You may find yourself grieving for their absence even though you know they are just a phone call away. This is normal and you will adjust to the new reality. As you anticipate this transition, you can make a collection of things, pictures, scrapbooks, journals or other ways you can remember them when they’ve moved away. The good news is that the dog will be so glad to see you when she visits. And you have the comfort of knowing that your daughter and her dog will benefit from having each other.