Dogs may not grieve death the same way humans do, but they notice when someone is no longer around. Dogs may not get depressed or sad after a loss in the family – whether the family is other dogs or humans – but many dogs respond when a person or animal is suddenly absent.
I’m not a veterinarian or animal grief expert, but I share my heart, home and life with two dogs. I’ve had my terrier, Georgie, since 2011. A year after we adopted her (she’s a rescue from the SPCA), the neighbor’s dog died. It was an accident – and it’s why I wrote How to Deal With Guilty Feelings After Your Dog’s Death. Every day after the neighbor dog died, Georgie would stop in front of their house and wait for the dog to show up. We walked with them most mornings, and our dogs enjoyed romping together. Georgie noticed that the dog next door was gone; it took her several days to stop looking for her doggy friend to come out of the house. I don’t necessarily think my dog was “grieving” the same way my neighbor was, but she definitely noticed and responded to the dog’s absence.
How do you help your dog cope or adjust after a loss or death? If you sit down with your dog and woof it out, be sure to include a good massage and tummy rub. Most dogs love to be petted, rubbed and even groomed. Both my dogs love when I massage their legs, spines, and the muscles along their sides. I think the best way to help any animal – dog or human – adjust to a loss is to love, love, love! Hug, massage, pat, rub and caress. A simple touch is reassuring and comforting, especially after a loss or death in the family.
To help my dog adapt to the neighbor dog’s death, I researched animal grief. Have you and your family experienced a loss lately? How do you know if your dog is grieving a death or absence? The best way to tell is if you notice changes in your dog’s activity level, food intake, or general health.
“You think dogs will not be in heaven? I tell you, they will be there long before any of us.” ~ Robert Louis Stevenson.
5 Ways to Help Your Dog Adjust to a Death or Loss
Here’s the most touching thing I learned about animal grief:
“Last week the Internet and European news outlets were flooded with poignant photographs of Gana, an 11-year-old gorilla at the Münster Zoo in Germany, holding up the body of her dead baby, Claudio, and pursing her lips toward his lifeless fingers. Claudio died at the age of three months of an apparent heart defect. For days Gana refused to surrender his corpse to zookeepers, a saga that provoked among her throngs of human onlookers admiration and compassion and murmurings that gorillas, and probably a lot of other animals as well, have a grasp of their mortality and will grieve for the dead and are really just like us after all.” ~ “About Death: Just Like Us or Pretty Much Unaware?” The New York Times.
Some pet owners notice a change in their dog’s demeanor, habits, and behaviors after an animal or human dies. Other dog and cat owners report no change at all. I have a feeling that dogs like Georgie, my smart terrier, notice the absence of a dog or person they’re attached to. Some dogs aren’t affected by a loss or death – like my little dog Tiffy! She’s a less-smart, more self-centered Bichon Frise. As long as Tiffy has her treats and cuddles, she doesn’t really seem to notice who is or isn’t around.
1. Expect your dog to respond in some way to the loss
“Surviving pets may whimper, refuse to eat or drink, and suffer lethargy, especially if they had a close bond with the deceased pet,” say the pet experts at the Humane Society of the United States. “Even if they were not the best of friends, the changing circumstances and your emotional state may distress them. However, if your remaining pets continue to act out of sorts, there could actually be a medical problem that requires your veterinarian’s attention.”
If your dog’s behavior, habits, or demeanor doesn’t revert back to normal within a month (or sooner if your dog animal is seriously distressed), consult a veterinarian. You may feel odd asking if your dog is grieving, sad or depressed because of a loss, but vets are often asked questions that seem peculiar! You aren’t the first dog owner to wonder if dogs grieve or are affected by the death of other pets or even humans.
2. Spend extra time in quiet stillness with your dog
“Pets observe every change in a household, and are bound to notice the absence of a companion,” writes Moira Anderson Allen in 10 Tips on Coping With Pet Loss. “Pets often form strong attachments to one another, and the survivor of such a pair may seem to grieve for its companion. Cats grieve for dogs, and dogs for cats. You may need to give your surviving pets a lot of extra attention and love to help them through this period. Remember that, if you are going to introduce a new pet, your surviving pets may not accept the newcomer right away, but new bonds will grow in time. Meanwhile, the love of your surviving pets can be wonderfully healing for your own grief.”
If you believe animals are spiritual beings, gain comfort from this reader’s comment:
“It’s been almost a month since my 9 1/2 year old German Shepherd girl ascended to rainbow bridge,” says Sam on Comforting Prayers for the Loss of a Beloved Dog or Cat. “It hasn’t gotten easier, I and my surviving dog are both heartbroken. I’ve been through a lot of challenges in life, even cancer, but this is the toughest by far! But I gain strength from knowing that dogs are such pure, loving spiritual beings. They do love unconditionally and transmute our daily stresses. My surviving dog is grieving with me as my teacher, protector, and comfort. Although I am having a very very hard time dealing with this grief, its a huge comfort to know that my beloved departed dog is still close by in spirit. Heaven and earth are just separated by a thin veil. I know my surviving dog is in spiritual contact with our lost dog, and I feel the messages from both. I can’t count all the signs my dog has sent to me this past month. They are beautiful and usually they come when I need her reassurance the most! Why not? This is what these beautiful souls do for us when physically here! Love and healing to all of you in your grief and loss.”
3. Stick to or change your routine? Depends on your dog’s personality
Some dog owners and vets advise sticking to the same routine if a dog is grieving. A familiar routine can be a source of security to a dog who is grieving the loss of a family member or fellow pet. On the other hand, other veterinarians and dog owners have found it more helpful to change the daily routine significantly. A different routine can be a healthy distraction for a grieving animal, an encouragement to see new life and experiences.
If you think your dog is grieving, try making small changes in the routine. How did your dog adapt? Also, consider your dog’s personality, age, and habits. Does your dog adapt well to change, or does he like routine? Does he seem happy and interested when trying new things, or most content sticking to the same foods, treats, walks, and schedule? My dogs seem to be happiest in a familiar daily routine right now. But, when I we lose one of our dogs we may find it more comforting to change our routine.
If you’re struggling with a recent loss or death, your dog might be responding to your grief or guilt. Sometimes going away for a few days is a healthy way to cope with loss. Here’s a helpful article for pet owners who need to get away but don’t want to kennel or board their dogs: What to Do You Do With Your Dog When You Travel?
4. Keep familiar objects (blankets, toys, other objects) in the same place
This suggestion is based on research from the animal kingdom: “Nobody knows what emotions swept through Gana’s head and heart as she persisted in cradling and nuzzling the remains of her son,” writes Natalie Angier in “About Death: Just Like Us or Pretty Much Unaware?” “But primatologists do know this: Among nearly all species of apes and monkeys in the wild, a mother will react to the death of her infant as Gana did — by clutching the little decedent to her breast and treating it as though it were still alive. For days or even weeks afterward, she will take it with her everywhere and fight off anything that threatens to snatch it away. ‘The only time I was ever mobbed by langurs was when I tried to inspect a baby corpse,’ said primatologist Sarah Hardy. Only gradually will she allow the distance between herself and the ever-gnarlier carcass to grow.”
Animals grieve by gradually letting go of the animal or person they lost. I believe even dogs experience a grieving process, a slow healing of heart and soul. Leaving toys, blankets or objects that once belonged to the deceased person or animal might be a healthy way to help your dog mourn the loss of a beloved family member.
5. Adopt another dog or cat to help your pet adjust?
“In my case, another pet was necessary to help not only me, but another surviving pet that was having a hard time dealing with the loss,” writes Gary Kurz in Cold Noses At The Pearly Gates: A Book of Hope for Those Who Have Lost a Pets. “For me, this worked extremely well. It helped me, and it helped my other grieving pets. For a short time, it was nothing more than a diversion from the pain, but eventually the new pet brought new joy to our house. This can be a very big step, and it is something each of us must weigh carefully.”
This is another tip for helping dogs grieve that isn’t agreed on by every pet owner or veterinarian. Some say yes, it’s helpful to adopt another dog or cat right away. Other vets and pet owners suggest waiting until you know for sure the time is right. Again, it depends on your dog, lifestyle, and ability to care for another animal. Are you ready to welcome a new pet into your home?
If you’re thinking about helping your pet grieve by adopting another animal, read How Soon Should I Adopt Another Cat?
What are your thoughts? Your big and little comments are welcome here. Feel free to share stories and memories of lost loved ones, and even your thoughts on how to help a surviving dog grieve the death of a loved one.
With echoes of love and comfort,