Understanding and Managing Dog Grief: Coping Strategies for Dog Parents

Jun 17, 2024

Grief touches the hearts of all who love, and this includes our loyal dogs. Just like us, dogs can experience deep sorrow when they lose a beloved friend or family member. Recognizing and understanding this grief is really important, not only for their well-being but also for being able to connect with and strengthen the bond we share with them. We believe dogs do grieve, and science backs this up. Knowing this means we can help them with the compassion and care they need during times of grief.

Do Dogs Grieve?

Grief is a profound emotional response to loss. It looks different in different creatures because we all grieve uniquely. It’s often characterized by various signs such as sadness, withdrawal, changes in appetite, and poor sleeping habits. Both humans and animals show signs of grief, and this reinforces the depth of their emotional bonds. For humans, grief is often shown by crying, lack of motivation, and social withdrawal, among other symptoms. Similarly, dogs show various behavioral and physiological changes when they are going through a grieving process.

Scientific research continues to back the notion that dogs experience grief. Studies show that dogs exhibit behavioral changes such as increased vocalizations, loss of appetite, and lethargy following the death of a companion dog. Sounds a lot like human grieving, doesn’t it? 

Researchers have also found that dogs have increased levels of cortisol, or the stress hormone, after dealing with losing a companion dog. Just as humans react to grief, dogs seem to go through the profound emotional pain that can accompany loss.

A study by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) found that 66% of dogs exhibited four or more behavioral changes after the loss of a canine companion. These changes included alterations in eating habits, increased clinginess, and changes in sleeping patterns. This research just goes to show the importance of recognizing grief in dogs so we can help them recover as they go through the grieving process. It’s our privilege and responsibility to offer them the compassion and care they need, with the same love and support they so generously give us.

Dogs Mourn the Loss of Humans and Other DogsPhoto: A  puppy sits sadly beside a suitcase.

Dogs may mourn the loss of a human family member, whether it’s due to death or absence. When a beloved person in their lives suddenly disappears, dogs can experience confusion and sadness, and this is them grieving.

In situations such as a couple going through a separation or divorce, or when a young adult moves out, dogs may struggle to understand the new living arrangements. The sudden absence of a family member can leave dogs feeling really anxious and confused. They may show signs of depression, like reduced energy, decreased interest in food, and increased clinginess or withdrawal. These behavioral changes are similar to those seen when dogs lose a companion to death, and goes to show how deep emotional bonds with their human family members are. 

Dogs can and often do grieve the loss of a companion dog. As the ‘surviving dog,’ they may find it particularly hard to cope with this type of loss. If it seems to you as if they’ve lost a sibling, they are likely feeling similarly.

The Relationship Between Dogs Grieving

Dogs can form deep emotional attachments to both people and other dogs, and the strength of these bonds can significantly influence how they grieve. When a dog loses a companion, the intensity of their grief often reflects the depth of their relationship.

Research has shown that the quality of a dog’s relationship with its companion is a stronger predictor of negative behavior during grief than the amount of time they had spent together. This means that even if dogs have known each other relatively briefly, a strong, positive bond can lead to more intense grief responses. On the same token, a long-term relationship with a less tight bond might not be as ‘hard’ on them.

Signs of Grief in Dogs

Dogs may show their grief in many different ways, just as humans do. Science supports this idea, that their grief behaviors are similar to ours. They often look ‘depressed’ and don’t seem to have their regular energy and zest for life. They may show a lack of interest in food and have a considerably lower activity level than before the incident that brought about the grief. Research has shown that dogs who lost a companion showed those very symptoms, as well as lethargy and a lack of interest in other activities they normally enjoyed. exhibit a range of behavioral changes when they experience grief, reflecting their deep emotional distress. Research has shown that these behaviors are like those seen in humans undergoing grief.

Grieving dogs may also show signs of stress. They can pant, whine, fidget and pace. Higher cortisol levels, which are physiological markers of stress, have been shown in dogs who experienced the loss of a close companion, dog or human, and suggest they grieve as we do when the same happens.

Every dog is unique, and their grief responses will likely differ. Some dogs may seem like they’re constantly looking for their missing human or animal around their house. They may even vocalize their confusion and sadness. It can be gut-wrenching, we know, but it’s important to know your support is what will help them move forward.

The Human-Dog Bond and Surviving Dog

The strength of the bond between you, the human, and your surviving dog can really affect how your dog grieves. This bond plays a crucial role in helping your dog navigate through the emotional turmoil of loss and find a path to healing.

Because dogs are individuals with unique personalities, quirks, and minds, they feel loss and sadness deeply, just as humans do. When a dog loses a companion, whether human or animal, the presence and support of their human family become even more vital. Your strong emotional connection can provide a sense of security and comfort during such challenging times.

And since dogs look to us for cues and reassurance, maintaining a calm and supportive manner is important. Spend extra time with your grieving dog, if you can, and offer physical affection, and playtime with their favorite activities to help reduce some sadness.

Just as we humans need time and compassion to heal from loss, so do dogs. Being patient and attentive to our best friends can help them cope with their emotions as they gradually return to their usual selves.

Supporting Your Grieving Dog

When your dog is grieving, it is so important to give them the time they need to mourn the loss. Try to reduce any additional disruptions in their life that could cause stress. A stable and familiar environment will provide the security they need during this tough time. Give your dog extra cuddles and praise when they show calm behaviors and seem like their ‘old’ selves. Physical affection and positive reinforcement can reassure them and help eliminate some of their stress.

At the same time, though, it is important to manage how you respond to certain behaviors. It’s hard to watch our dogs struggle and suffer, but when we over-emote because of that, it may make the situation worse accidentally. Managing your own grief is hard, but important to help your surviving dog.

Managing Your Own Grief

Taking steps to work through your grief has the added benefit of helping your dog through the grieving process. Dogs are such sensitive creatures and they’re so often in tune with our emotions. Scientific studies have shown that dogs may exhibit more signs of stress when their owners are stressed.

By managing your own grief and maintaining a calm, composed, and stable emotional state, you can create a more reassuring environment for your dog. Take time for yourself to help process your emotions–talk to friends, do calming things, seek professional help if you need it. The more you can maintain a sense of normalcy and emotional stability, the better your dog will cope with their grief.

Supporting a grieving dog when you are also grieving involves a balance of patience, affection, and emotional self-care–for you and your dog.

When to Seek Professional HelpPhoto: A Boxer mix lays on the floor as it grieves.

If your dog is experiencing severe grief symptoms, it may be time to do more or seek professional help. Watch for signs like the following that seem like they’re not getting any better:

  • Destructive behavior
  • Heightened anxiety
  • Persistent loss of appetite
  • Withdrawal from social interaction
  • Excessive vocalization (howling or whining)
  • Changes in sleep patterns

Holistic Ways to Help Your Dog Cope

Consider helping your dog through the grieving process by trying some natural, at-home, and holistic approaches:

  • Maintain Routine: Keep their daily schedule as consistent as possible to provide a sense of stability.
  • Exercise: Ensure your dog gets regular physical activity to help manage stress and anxiety.
  • Mental Stimulation: Engage your dog in activities that stimulate their mind, such as puzzle toys or training sessions.
  • Comfort Items: Provide items that offer comfort, like their favorite blanket or toy.
  • Quality Time: Spend extra time with your dog, offering gentle affection and reassurance.

Herbs and Supplements to Help Grieving Dogs

Certain herbs and supplements can provide natural support to help your dog through their grieving process. Here are some dog-safe options backed by scientific research:

Grief is such a complex emotion, and there is no right way to navigate loss. Dogs feel it deeply, just as we do, and it is our privilege and responsibility to help them through their pain. By understanding their needs, offering stability, and providing both emotional and holistic support, we can help our grieving dogs find comfort and peace. Their unwavering loyalty and love deserve our compassion and care, especially during their most challenging times. In helping them, we honor the bond we share and make sure that they are never alone in their journey through grief.

 

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