Grief, and the whirlwind of emotions that come with it, is something we have all likely felt at one time or another, whether it’s after the loss of a friend, family member, or beloved pet. What’s harder to know is whether grief, as we understand it, is something that our canine companions feel when they lose a fellow four-legged friend.
While we can’t just ask them, we can observe them – and most evidence seems to indicate that, yes, dogs experience grief in some form. In fact, it’s likely that they feel all of the emotions that go along with grief when they lose both human and canine companions during their lives.
There are many instances of dogs grieving the loss of their owners, but there are also several studies that show that dogs grieve for their close canine companions as well. Read on to discover how dogs grieve for other dogs, how you can identify it, and what you can do to help your pup after the loss of a furry buddy.
Grieving Dogs Act Differently
An article by Barbara J. King in the May 2017 edition of Scientific American revealed how dogs experience behavioral changes after the death of a fellow pup.
King, professor emerita of anthropology at the College of William and Mary, also explored this topic in her 2013 book How Animals Grieve. “We can’t understand how an animal understands or thinks about death,” says King. “We can only evaluate what we can see, and when someone in a dog’s life dies, dogs will react with behavioral changes.”
That includes the loss of another dog. “After a dog dies, another dog in the household may show social withdrawal,” says King. “He may fail to eat or drink, he may search for his lost companion, or exhibit vocalizations that show he is stressed.”
Signs of Grief in Dogs
Although we observe that dogs do grieve for other dogs, they may not fully comprehend the concept of death and all of its metaphysical implications. “Dogs don’t necessarily know that another dog in their life has died, but they know that individual is missing,” says Dr. Marc Bekoff, professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado Boulder and author of the 2018 book Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do. “It’s a situation of loss of companionship where that dog is no longer around.”
Your dog simply knows that their friend is no longer present and may exhibit one or more symptoms of grief including:
- Withdrawal from people and other pets.
- A lack of appetite.
- Lethargic behavior and sleeping more than usual.
- Unusually aggressive or destructive behaviors.
- Inappropriate elimination within the home.
- Calling out or vocalizing in an unusual way for the dog who has passed away.
- Searching for the companion dog within the home and other places frequented by the other dog.
- Becoming very clingy to the owner and following the owner around.
If you notice these signs, they are the normal part of the grieving process and shouldn’t be harshly punished. Instead, try to reassure your dog as much as possible with love and praise and gently discourage or redirect destructive behaviors.
Dogs Grieve Based on the Relationship
Dogs can form emotional attachments to people and to other dogs. But, just as with people, not all dogs react the same after the loss of another dog in the household. If the pups shared a very close bond, then the dog may react with behaviors that indicate depression after a furry friend passes away, says Dr. Mary Burch, a certified applied animal behaviorist with more than 25 years of experience working with dogs.
“The signs of grieving for both dogs and people can be the same,” says Dr. Burch. “Depression is a typical sign and it is characterized by changes such as sleep problems, a decreased appetite, a decrease in activity, and increased anxiety that, for dogs, manifests itself with behaviors such as panting, pacing, and sometimes the destruction of objects.”
In general, grieving dogs who have recently lost a close buddy may lose their “spark” and suddenly seem less perky, attentive, and active, says Dr. Burch. On the other hand, if the dogs weren’t close, there may be no signs of grief. “As a matter of fact, in a case where the dogs just coexisted and really did not interact much, if the owner began lavishing attention and activities on the remaining dog, the dog might actually seem happier.”
Note that there is nothing malicious about a lack of grieving behaviors in dogs, says Dr. Bekoff. Each individual dog just grieves differently.
Dogs Pick Up on Our Grief
When you lose a furry family member, not only will your dog experience behavioral changes, but you will undoubtedly feel the devastating loss and behave differently as well.
“Dogs pick up on our mood, odors, facial expressions, and even read our postures,” says Dr. Bekoff. “They read differences in us and can feed off our own feelings, including sadness and grief.”
There have even been scientific studies that indicate owners who are feeling stressed tend to have dogs who are stressed too, according to Dr. Brian Hare, professor of evolutionary anthropology Duke University and founder of Duke’s Canine Cognition Center. “A study in the June 2019 edition of Scientific Reports using cortisol measurements in the hair or fur of people and pets argued that people who are stressed at home have dogs who show signs of stress,” says Dr. Hare. Cortisol is a chemical produced by the body in dogs and humans when an individual is under some kind of stress.
So when you’re feeling sad because you’ve lost a beloved pet, your dog is feeding off your sadness. Because dogs are genetically tuned to bond closely with their human owners, this can, in effect, double up on your pup’s emotional stress.
To avoid contributing to your dog’s grief, offer love and reassurance after the loss of another household pet. “There’s nothing wrong with trying to cheer up your dog,” says Dr. Bekoff. “Give him an extra treat, extra walk, a hug, or let him sleep next to you.”
How Long Grief Can Last in Dogs?
A study published in the November 2016 edition of Animals found that canine grieving behaviors — and how long they last — can vary from dog to dog, according to Dr. Jennifer Coates, DVM, an advisor for Pup Life Today. “Typically, their behavior returned to normal within two to six months.”
Similar to humans, the grieving process differs for each individual dog experiencing it, lasting from weeks to months. “You can’t normalize the grieving process. Some people grieve differently and some dogs grieve differently,” says Dr. Bekoff. Many things can affect how long the grieving process lasts, including the age and health of the dog, the relationship with the other dog, and the grieving process of the humans in the household.
How to Help Your Grieving Dog
Grief and sadness are hard to deal with and the same is true for your dog. You may notice that your dog is hiding more than usual and that’s OK. Allow your dog to grieve and have some time alone, recommends Dr. Bekoff. Spend time with your pup when he wants it, ensure he gets plenty of exercise, and observe him when he eats so that he gets the necessary nutrition to stay healthy.
“For a dog that enjoys the company of another dog, one solution after the family has grieved, is to get another dog,” says Dr. Burch. “No one we love can be replaced, but if the dogs ran and played together or spent time together while the owner was at work, another dog may help.”
If adding a new furry family member to your household isn’t an option, Dr. Burch recommends arranging a few fun “play dates” with other dogs and finding new activities to do with your pup.
Most importantly, just be there for your dog to give the love and attention he needs to recover from the loss of a close friend. That will help your own grief too.
When to See a Veterinarian
If you notice that your dog isn’t eating or is very lethargic, it might be time to head to a veterinarian for a checkup.
“As a veterinarian, whenever I’ve helped owners through the loss of a pet in a multi-pet household, I’ve made a point of letting them know that animal grief is real and normal,” says Dr. Coates. “However, a pet who develops especially severe or persistent symptoms like lack of appetite, vomiting, diarrhea, or lethargy should be seen by a veterinarian as these may not be due to grief.”
Not only can a veterinarian help diagnose and treat an illness that your dog might be experiencing, they can also prescribe a medication to help with your pup’s grief. These medications help with behaviors related to depression or anxiety to help your dog feel like himself again.