Do Dogs Mourn?

By Tammy Hunter, DVM; Ryan Llera, BSc, DVM; Lynn Buzhardt, DVM

Dog lovers consider big, mournful puppy eyes gazing at them to be heartwarming. Those soulful glances melt human hearts. But after the loss of a feline, canine, or human companion, could those mournful eyes indicate that the dog is actually mourning?

Do dogs have emotions?

It is difficult to assess what those mournful eyes mean because our canine friends cannot tell us what they are feeling. Even though dogs do not verbalize that they are happy or sad, astute pet owners interpret their pets’ emotions based on behavior. With these interpretations in mind, it is commonly acknowledged that dogs do feel happiness, sadness, possessiveness and fear. They also get angry and nervous. And they do indeed mourn.

What are the signs of mourning?

When a dog loses a companion, whether animal or human, he grieves and reacts to the changes in his life. Dogs alter their behavior when they mourn, much like people do.

  • They may become depressed and listless.
  • They may have a decreased appetite and decline to play.
  • They may sleep more than usual and move more slowly, sulking around.

Pet owners recognize these changes in daily behavior as the same ones that grieving humans often exhibit. The common denominator in human or canine grief is the loss of a central individual (animal or human) along with the associated bond.

Skeptics suggest that dogs don’t really grieve and attribute their behavioral changes to the alterations in daily routine resulting from the absence of an integral figure in the dog’s life. In other words, the dog is “upset” because his schedule is off. With the loss of a companion dog, perhaps the surviving dog misses canine interaction and play time. With the loss of a human companion, perhaps feeding and walking schedules are changed as the new caregiver takes charge.

Since a dog may not understand death as something permanent, sometimes they will wait patiently, believing that the deceased will return. Others suggest that the dog may just be reacting to the grief exhibited by humans in the house as they deal with the death of a family member.

Has there been any research on the subject?

A study conducted in 1996 by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), called the Companion Animal Mourning Project, gathered data that shed new light on the canine grieving process. The survey study focused on common signs associated with mourning and found:

  • 36% of dogs experienced a decreased appetite following the loss of a canine companion.
  • Approximately 11% refused to eat at all.
  • Many dogs slept more than usual while some suffered insomnia.
  • Some dogs changed the area of the house where they slept.
  • About 63% of dogs exhibited changes in vocal patterns, with some vocalizing more, while others were quieter than they were before their loss of a human companion.
  • Surviving dogs were often more affectionate with their owners and became clingy.

The study, which assessed many different behavior patterns, concluded that 66% of dogs experienced four or more behavioral changes after the loss of a family pet that indicated grief.

How can I help my dog cope with grief?

When signs of grief become evident following the loss of an animal or human family member, you can help your dog deal with grief in the following ways:

1. Spend extra time with your dog. Divert your dog’s attention by engaging in his favorite pastimes. Go for a walk. Play a game of fetch. Take a ride in the car.

2. Be more affectionate. Make a point of petting your dog more often. Make eye contact and talk to him by verbalizing routine household activities, “OK, Scout, let’s load the dishwasher.”

3. If your dog enjoys company, invite friends over who will interact with him. A little human variety, can pique your dog’s interest.

4. Provide entertainment while you are gone. Hide treats in favored household locations for him to find during the day or fill a foraging toy with food to keep him busy while you are gone.

5. Reinforce good behavior and ignore inappropriate behavior. Some mournful dogs vocalize or howl without provocation. Although it is difficult, try to ignore this behavior. Resist the temptation to give your dog a treat to quiet him, which will only reinforce the behavior you want to change. Firmly tell him to hush and reward him if he complies. The reward does not have to be food; a cuddle will suffice. You may also try to break the howling cycle by distracting your dog. Instead of approaching him, which may be interpreted as positive reinforcement of the undesirable behavior, try calling him to you. If he heeds your command, praise him and initiate a distraction such as a walk or a game.

6. Consider medical therapy. If your dog has prolonged difficulty following a loss, ask your veterinarian about the use of a behavior modification drug. There are several medications that can serve as adjunct therapy and may enhance your efforts at resolving behavior issues associated with mourning. Your veterinarian may want to do blood and urine tests before prescribing medication to rule out systemic problems that could affect behavior, such as thyroid problems, diabetes, or electrolyte imbalances, to name a few.

7. Think carefully about replacing a lost pet. If your dog’s grief is due to the loss of a canine companion, don’t rush to find a replacement. Give your dog time to grieve and adjust to the loss. Introduction of a new dog may add more stress to an already stressful situation.

Establishing a new, comfortable social structure in the home following the loss of a human or canine family member is important for the entire family, but even more so for dogs. People have lives that extend outside the immediate family unit to help distract them from grief or place the loss in a broader perspective. They see friends at work, meet people at the gym, and communicate with distant friends and relatives online.

Dogs have a much narrower social structure with set boundaries that extend only as far as the inside of the house, or the perimeter of the yard, or the walking path around the neighborhood. Their days are focused on a much smaller social periphery that may include only the other pets and people within the immediate family unit. When a member of that family unit is gone, there is a huge void in the dog’s life and they may need help in dealing with loss.

Time will also contribute to the healing process of both pet and pet owner. Loss will become easier to bear and fond memories will replace sorrow. And the relationship between the survivors, canine and human, may evolve into something even more beautiful as a new way of life is established following a loss.

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