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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 became legendary for their devotion.
Dog emotions are an interesting topic of debate among researchers. While the general consensus seems to be that dogs don’t experience complex emotions such as pride, shame, or contempt, it turns out that grief is something they can and do experience. For a deeper exploration of dog emotions, we highly recommend the groundbreaking book Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know by acclaimed researcher Alexandra Horowitz.
Since dogs 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. The experience of grief isn’t rare by a long shot in pets. 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.
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 a grieving dog exhibit these symptoms:
- Looking for the missing family member
- Whining or howling
- Checking the places the person, or pet, used to frequent
- Alert barking
For instance, 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. She’d then turn to look at us as if to say “Where is he?” It had us humans blinking back tears.
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 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.
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. Maintain a routine.
If your dog becomes clingy or whiny, be careful not to encourage this behavior by overcompensating (for instance, offering high-value foods or treats at mealtimes can create a finicky eater). As veterinarian Justine Lee writes in Prevention, you want to comfort your pet and allow her time to grieve, while also keeping up her normal routine. This includes her accustomed meals, mealtimes, walks, and naps.
4. Give them a reminder of their lost loved one.
Comfort can mean letting your dog 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 place. While these foods may not be the healthiest treats for our dogs, once in a while won’t hurt.
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.
7. Get support from a trusted pet caregiver.
Our busy lives must continue even during periods of mourning, and it’s difficult to explain to your dog! Enlist the help of a dedicated local dog walker or loving pet sitter to help your grieving dog stay active—and give yourself some peace of mind.
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 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.