Erin Mapes Sako, DVM
Home With Dignity
When a dog passes away, the feelings of grief and loss we as humans feel can be overwhelming. It affects each one of us differently and in so many ways. Some of us shut down and don’t want to do anything for days, while others need to rush out and get a puppy as soon as possible. There are many online tools, support groups, and counseling to help us cope with loss. But what about our dogs that are still here with us? How does the loss of a housemate affect them, do they suffer grief like we do? And if so, how can we help them recover? These questions have been pondered over and researched for many years.
It is difficult to define what the actual word “grief” is to dogs, but as humans we tend to associate what we feel with how our dogs act. A recent study involving 426 dogs in Italy (1) looked specifically at the behavioral changes noted in dogs after the loss of a housemate, and recognized the importance of meeting not only their physical needs but their emotional needs as well. The study showed that dogs experiencing a recent loss often would play and eat less, sleep more, have an overall reduced activity level, became more fearful, and many owners also noted increased attention seeking behaviors (soiling in the house) and increased vocalization.
Even though scientists can’t technically classify dogs feeling the equivalent of the human form of “grief”, we as pet owners tend to believe they do. Thankfully, regardless of how you define it, there are several ways to help our pets cope with loss. While there are certain unique situations where age and other health factors are playing a role, in most cases we can support and assist them through the recovery process. For example, offer your dog new chew toys, treats, or a cozy new bed. Give them extra snuggles. Increase their exercise time. Take them for a car ride, go to a new park, visit a friend, or anything to get them out of the house. (2) If these things don’t help or you are concerned that the stress they are going through is affecting their physical health, a vet visit is advised to check for underlying health issues.
Overall, no matter the word we use, we know that dogs do show signs of grief following the loss of a housemate. For some dogs it may only last a few days, but for others it lingers for months. Keep in mind that time is a relative concept for dogs, what is a day for us may seem like a week for them, and not all dogs will recover at the same rate or in the same way. While making sure their physical needs are met, just do what you can to support them emotionally. They love you and can sense your sadness, too. Give them time to heal, and often they will help you as well.