Dogs and grief

Every time I get on the internet there is always a heart wrenching video of a dog attending the funeral or gravesite of its beloved owner. There is one video in particular that has gone viral. It’s of a black Lab, owned by a soldier killed overseas that was brought to the service by a family member. During the service the dog goes up to the casket, lays down and keeps vigil next to the closed casket for the remainder of the service. Ugghhhh…my heart is breaking. A couple years ago there was a volcano eruption in Chile. I remember reading a story about a dog that stayed outside, for a couple of days I think, next to a pile of mud (ash probably) because its owner had been buried. Yikes, tears again. There are also stories of dogs grieving for each other. I have read stories of dogs running into traffic to keep vigil over their fallen comrades, I watched a video of a dog finding a deceased dog and burying it.

So what’s the story with dogs and grief? It seems that dogs do experience grief of some sort, on some level. It’s really no different than for humans; the emotional response is, on some level, the same. Just like with humans, the grief response can be more or less depending on the breed and personality of the dog.

The serotonin response- the mood enhancing hormone- can drop and cause dogs (and humans) to become depressed, particularly after the death of a loved one. Dogs can experience grief or depression after the loss of an owner or another pet. If you’ve experienced the loss of a pet in your family, or unfortunately there has been a human loss or perhaps you’ve adopted a pet whose owner has recently died, here are the signs to look for.

Loss of Appetite

The ASPCA conducted a Companion Animal Mourning Project in 1996 and found that 36% of animals ate less than usual after the death of another canine companion, and 11% stopped eating completely. Exercise will create an appetite, so try and take your dog for more walks. Like with all things if it persists talk to your vet.

More / Less Barking

With this study, they found that 63% of dogs became more vocal than normal. If your dog was really a barker to begin with, she may go to the other end of the spectrum and become more quiet. When my coworker had to put one of his dogs down, the other dog would howl at night when going to bed for the first couple weeks.

Behavior Changes

More than half of the pets became more clingy and affectionate during this time, and may change sleeping locations. Animal behaviorists say it’s ok to let your dog sleep with you during this adjustment time. Provide your pet with more affection and attention. When I divorced, Reggie stayed at my ex-husband’s house for almost 3 weeks before I was moved in, had food, a bed, and he and I worked out a dog-custody arrangement. During that time he had a seizure and was generally lethargic. He didn’t know what was going on, only that I was gone. When I brought him to my house I took a couple days off of work to spend the entire day with him to acclimate him to a new space, play, walk, etc. and make sure he was comfortable before leaving him at home alone all day in a new place. It took a couple of rotations back and forth between houses before he adjusted to the new arrangement, but it was clear in the beginning that he was experiencing a sense of loss each time he switched.

Lost Interest in Activity

If it is another family pet that has passed, don’t get rid of the other pet’s items right away. Keep the items (bedding, toys) around so the other pets can smell them and adjust. This is especially important if you had to take the dog to be euthanized; the other pets may be waiting for the other dog to come home. Take your dog for more frequent walks and engage them in their favorite activities. This might be hard for them at first and that’s ok. Sometimes getting another pet can help, but check your timing. Don’t do it too soon and don’t do it just to replace a lost pet.

If your dog is experiencing these symptoms because of a loss of some kind in your family, be compassionate in their feelings as well. It’s no different than yours. If they persist talk to your veterinarian, sometimes medication may be necessary to help them through it. Time heals all wounds, human and canine, be compassionate partners!

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