- Not a substitute for professional veterinary help.
Many of us who have more than one dog have seen our canine family members become depressed after the loss of another dog or feline buddy in the family. A quick internet search will bring up stories and images of dogs mourning their deceased owners all over the world, like Shep, Hachiko, or Greyfriars Bobby, dogs who mourned the loss of their deceased owners for years, becoming legendary for their devotion.
While the general consensus by science is that dogs don’t experience complex emotions such as pride, shame, guilt or contempt, it turns out that grief is something they can and do experience.
How do dogs grieve?
Since they can’t talk to us to tell us what’s going on, often the only way we know something is wrong is a change in behavior, according to VetStreet. With a death in the family, dogs often behave much as we do, with appetite loss, activity decreasing (sleeping a lot), moping, and not wanting to do things they normally enjoy, like playing ball. Indeed, their grief can mirror and even be exacerbated by our own grief.
You also might see them looking for the missing family member, whining or howling, checking the places the person, or pet, used to frequent (bedrooms, home office, or living room areas), and whining or barking at you when they can’t find their friend.
A familiar car pulling in the driveway can have your pet running out to greet their human, and they become confused when the person they’re expecting isn’t the one who gets out of the car. One of my dogs did this for weeks when my friends would come by without their dog—her best buddy—who had died unexpectedly in a tragic, freak accident. She’d run around to each door of the car, sniffing and checking inside, expecting her canine pal to leap out and run and play with her like he always did, then turning to look at us as if to say “Where is he?” It had us humans blinking back tears, all of us missing the fabulous, one in a million dog who had died way too young.
The experience of grief isn’t rare by a long shot in pets. As VetStreet pointed out, ASPCA conducted a study on pet mourning in 1996 that found more than 50 percent of dogs experience some sort of behavioral change after the loss of a companion.
It’s important to be observant of your pet at this time—which can be difficult when you, too, are grieving the same loss. Our dogs cue into our emotions, and keeping a brave face for your grieving dog can be hard. Support groups or grief therapy are a good way for us humans to process the loss of a family member. If you are grieving the loss of a pet, check with your veterinarian or local humane society for pet loss support groups to attend. They will likely have suggestions for helping your other pets with their mourning as well.
Helping your dog heal from a loss
1. Go on more walks.
Something that will help you both is extra time together in the form of walks or trips to the park.
2. Rule out medical issues.
If your dog is moping and hiding, not eating, avoiding activity, or acting out in any other way, make an appointment with your vet to rule out any medical issues.
3. Don’t over-treat.
If she’s become clingy or whiny, be careful not to encourage this behavior by overcompensating while trying to draw her out (for instance, tempting her with high-value foods or treats at mealtimes to try to get her to eat can create a finicky eater). As veterinarian Justine Lee writes in Prevention, you want to comfort your pet, and allow her time to grieve without allowing the behavior to become ingrained or encouraged. Keep up her normal routine without excessive coddling.
4. Give them a reminder of their lost loved one.
Comfort can mean letting her sleep with the other dog’s blanket or toy, or, in the case of a human loss, with a t-shirt or other article of clothing.
5. Be spontaneous.
A ride in the car can be a welcome adventure, maybe with a stop at a drive-through for a fun treat like a Starbucks Puppucino, or a plain hamburger from a fast food drive-through. While these foods may not be the healthiest treats for our dogs, once in a while won’t hurt if it helps her out of her funk.
6. Don’t adopt a new pet right away.
Depending on your dog’s personality, it’s usually best to wait on bringing in a new pet until they’ve worked through the grief. Generally, most grieving dogs will start to perk up in a couple of weeks, but some can go longer.
Ultimately, be patient with your pet, give him time to mourn, and keep encouraging him on those walks and play times. A little extra attention—a new toy or chew bone, trips in the car (if he likes car rides)—to get him engaged in the world again will help to bring him around faster.
In time he’ll once again be the happy-go-lucky dog you know and love.