Canine Grief

Canine Grief - “Do Dogs Mourn?”

   When one dog dies, owners will often notice some changes in the pets that are left behind. They may become aloof or lethargic.  Some may stop eating or become clingy.  Based on these outward signs, it appears that dogs do grieve when their canine companion dies. 

   When a person experiences the death of a human loved one, we may know he feels grief based on what he says.  Very often, however, it is how he reacts or what he does that tells us he is suffering.  He loses his focus, becomes listless and disoriented, doesn’t eat and becomes disinterested in what is happening around him.  The perosn may cry or go without sleep or sleep more than usual.  

   An animal that is experiencing the loss of another animal companion may react similarly. “Some animals can actually become depressed when they lose a loved one,” says Monique D. Chretien, MSc, AHT, Animal Behavior Consultant.  “They show symptoms similar to humans such as loss of interest in their favorite activities and sleeping more than usual.  However, sometimes dogs may distance themselves from the family and sleep more than usual when they are ill, so you should consult with your veterinarian before seeing a behaviorist if your dog exhibits symptoms such as these.”

   The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals conducted a Companion Animal Mourning Project in 1996.  The study found that 36 percent of dogs ate less than usual after the death of another canine companion.  About 11 percent actually stopped eating completely.  About 63 percent of dogs vocalized more than normal or became quieter.  Study respondents indicated that surviving dogs changed quantity and location of sleep.  More than half the surviving pets became more affectionate and clingy with their caregivers.  Overall, the study revealed that 66 percent of dogs exhibited four or more behavioral changes after losing a pet companion. 

   If your dog shows signs that she is grieving the loss of an animal or human family member, provide her with more attention and affection.  “Try to take her mind off it by engaging her in a favorite activity,” says Chretien.  If she enjoys human company, invite friends that she likes to visit and spend time with her.  Use environmental enrichment techniques such as toys to help keep her busy.  Hide toys or treats at her favorite spots for her to find during the day. 

   If your dog is too depressed over the loss, she may not respond to extra activity right away. The old saying, “Time heals all wounds,” has meaning for your dog too.  “Time is one thing that may help,” says Chretien.  Based on the results of the ASPCA study, most dogs returned to normal after about two weeks but some dogs took up to six months to fully recover.  

   If your dog is vocalizing more or howling, don’t give her treats to distract her or you might unintentionally reinforce the howling.  “Giving attention during any behavior will help to reinforce it so be sure you are not reinforcing a behavior that you don’t like,” says Chretien. “Give attention at a time when your dog is engaging in behaviors that you do like, such as when she is resting quietly or watching the squirrels.  As the pain of loss begins to subside, so should the vocalizing, as long as it is related to the grieving process.”  

   If you are thinking about adding another dog, wait until you and your surviving dog have adjusted to the loss.  Forcing your dog to get to know a newcomer will only add stress to their already anxiety-ridden emotional state.  And be patient.  Your dog may miss the canine companion as much as you do.  

Dr. Kathleen Cooney - www.HometoHeaven.com

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How to Help

While extremely long periods of grieving aren’t normal in dogs, simply showing patience and understanding to a pet in mourning can help an anguished dog cope, suggests anthropologist and author Elizabeth Marshall Thomas.

While it’s safe to show your pet a little patience, human emotions and behaviors can also feed in to the dog’s mood or behavior, suggests Dr. Pachel. “It’s a natural human tendency to want to console, to comfort, to soothe, to nurture, yet it is possible to feed in to the negative emotional process,” Dr. Pachel says. For instance, “if the dog is reluctant to eat and then gets more attention for sitting by the bowl rather than eating that’s a great way to create a picky eater, at that point.”

Maintaining a normal routine for your pet, such as maintaining a familiar eating time or playtime, is the best way to help with the transitional process. Take a tip from animals that live in the wild. They don’t have as much time to grieve as domesticated animals, “they have to move on pretty quickly, to suck it up and keep going, just like some of us must do,” Thomas says. “This doesn’t mean that grief isn’t still with them, just that they can’t do much about it.”

In the case of an extremely depressed dog, you can also add to your dog’s normal routine to raise serotonin levels, which may have a positive impact on your dog’s behavior. A dog that doesn’t get much playtime could benefit from a short walk or exercise. Read Cesar’s ideas on how to engage in thoughtful playtime with your dog.

When one dog in a two-dog household is gravely ill, it may help for the healthier dog to be present during euthanasia, or at least for the animal to see the deceased dog’s body, says Dr. Pachel. Similarly with a dog like Hawkeye, who was able to lie near the casket of his deceased owner, if it’s a possible scenario, it just may help the dog to understand the process better.

As for getting a new pet as a replacement, it really depends on the individual situation, says Thomas. “When I’ve lost a loved one, it didn’t help me to bring in a new person as a replacement for the deceased person.”

Introducing a new dog to the family during a time of transition can, in effect, establish an unconstructive dynamic in the household, explains Dr. Pachel. The owner’s attitude might change, which can create further confusion in your pet. Consistency and stability is more important for the dog who’s grieving.

By Brandi Andres: "A Dog in Mourning: Helping our Pets Cope with Loss"


tkjeldsberg@gmail.com © Tanya Kjeldsberg 2012