Owners will often notice some changes in the pets that are left behind when a dog dies. Some become aloof or lethargic, stop eating or become clingy to their owner. Because of this it appears that dogs do indeed grieve when a canine companion dies. Since pets can’t tell us in human words what they are thinking or feeling, we base our understanding of their emotional condition on their behavior. How do they react in certain situations or specific circumstances?
When a person experiences the loss of a beloved human, we can learn their grief based on what he says. But it is how he reacts or what he does that tells us he is suffering. He loses his focus, becomes listless and disoriented, doesn’t eat and becomes disinterested in what is happening around him. The person may cry or go without sleep or may even sleep more than usual.
An animal that is experiencing the loss of another animal companion may react similarly. Animal behaviorists are learning that some animals actually become depressed with the loss of a loved one. Just like humans, they show symptoms like loss of interest in their favorite activities and sleeping more than usual. (It is important to remember that dogs may distance themselves from the family and sleep more than usual when they are ill, so you should always consult with your veterinarian before seeing a behaviorist if your dog exhibits symptoms such as these.)
A dog may have a loss of appetite, become disoriented, or be clingier. Grieving dogs may sit at a window for days watching for the return of a canine pal who was taken to a veterinarian to be euthanized. Animal behaviorists commonly call this emotional state separation anxiety. On the surface, the pet’s behavior is similar to that of a person experiencing grief over the loss of a loved one.
The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals conducted a Companion Animal Mourning Project in 1996. The study found that 36 percent of dogs ate less than usual after the death of another canine companion. About 11 percent actually stopped eating completely. About 63 percent of dogs vocalized more than normal or became quieter. Study respondents indicated that surviving dogs changed the quantity and location of sleep. More than half the surviving pets became more affectionate and clingy with their caregivers. Overall, the study revealed that 66 percent of dogs exhibited four or more behavioral changes after losing a pet companion.
If your dog shows signs of grieving the loss of an animal or human family member, provide him or her with more attention and affection. Try engaging them in a favorite activity. For dogs who relish human companionship, invite friends that the dog likes to visit and spend time with. Try using enrichment techniques such as toys to keep them busy. Hide favorite toys or treats at favorite spots for the dog to find during the day. A dog who is too depressed over the loss may not respond to extra activity right away. The old adage that time heals all wounds has meaning for your dog, too. Based on the results of the ASPCA study, most dogs returned to normal after about two weeks but some dogs took up to six months to fully recover.
If your dog is vocalizing more or howling, don’t give her treats to distract her or you might unintentionally reinforce the howling. Remember that giving attention during any behavior will help to reinforce it so be sure you are not reinforcing a behavior that you don’t like! Instead, give attention at a time when your dog is engaging in behaviors that you do like, such as when she is resting quietly or watching the activity outdoors. Just know that as the pain of the loss begins to subside, so should the vocalizing, as long as it is related to the grieving process.
Finally, when you are thinking about adding another dog, wait until you and your surviving dog have adjusted to the loss. Forcing your dog to get to accept a new dog will only add stress to an already anxiety-ridden emotional state. Be Patient! Remember, your dog may miss her canine companion as much as you do.