Dogs Feel Grief When Canine Companion Dies

After a dog died, changes in behavior were common in the surviving dogs, the team found, with only about 13% of owners seeing no changes in habits.

For example, attention seeking shot up in two-thirds of surviving dogs, while 57% started playing less often. Overall activity levels decreased in 46% of the dogs, with about a third tending to sleep more, eat less and/or be more anxious. Three out of ten dogs barked and whined more.

The team did find that the risk of behavioral changes increased the more an owner grieved.

In the study, “the level of fear in the surviving dog was positively correlated with” [the] the level of suffering, anger and psychological trauma of the owners,” Pirrone said.

The findings were published Feb. 24 in the journal Scientific Reports.

Patricia McConnell, a board-certified applied animal behaviorist, reviewed the findings and thinks all the changes mentioned in the study actually lead to manifestations of canine distress.

“I’m glad the research was done, because frankly it seems impossible that dogs wouldn’t grieve,” McConnell said. “They’re very social, some of the most social mammals in the world. And as mammals, they share a lot of the same neurobiology and physiology that drive our own emotions.”

What should you do if one of your dogs dies?

Pirrone advised maintaining routines and staying close to the surviving dog, to “make them feel protected.”

But McConnell warned that — as with human grief — there is no quick “fix.”

In advice she shares online, McConnell encourages owners to give themselves space to grieve too, even though they know that “dogs can be extremely sensitive to your suffering and feel powerless to ‘fix’ it on their own.”

McConnell also suggests spending time “talking” to your dog to maintain a bond while also striving to follow a mix of old daily routines and new stimulating activities.

But ultimately, she said, “dogs need something similar to what we need: gentleness, nurturing care and time, time, time.”

More information

There is more on human-pet relationships at the United States Department of Health and Human Services.

SOURCES: Federica Pirrone, DVM, PhD, Lecturer in Veterinary Ethology and Animal Welfare, Department of Veterinary Medicine and Animal Sciences, University of Milan; Patricia McConnell, PhD; certified applied animal behaviorist and expert, companion animal behavior and the biology and philosophy of human/animal relationships, and adjunct professor of zoology, University of Wisconsin-Madison; Scientific Reports, February 24, 2022

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