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Featuring Demian Dressler, DVM and Susan Ettinger, DVM, Dip. ACVIM (Oncology), authors of The Dog Cancer Survival Guide

Mourning for Dogs and Their People

Updated: October 9th, 2018

Whether or not a loved dog has cancer, time is limited. And one of the easiest things to forget is this fact of being a Guardian…we usually outlive our four legged family members.  But we are not the only ones who mourn for the loss of loved ones.

A recent article in Health Day described a dog who attended his guardian’s funeral, a fallen soldier, and sat down at the base of the coffin.  Although this might seem remarkable to some, for those of us who live and love animals as part of life, it is hardly surprising.  We have witnessed dogs having emotional intelligence in our own lives, gently licking us when we are troubled, or perhaps just moving closer during our hard times.  We have seen them experience joy at our happiness, bounding and wagging during our life wins.

And so it is also not surprising that dogs, like us, mourn the departure of a loved family member.  This is seen when a dog’s guardian leaves the home, whether going off to college or the great beyond.  The same can happen with the passing of another dog in the home. Readers of this blog likely will not be taken aback with the headline of the article, “Dogs May Mourn as Deeply as Humans Do.”  But of course they do.

However, there are some differences between dogs and people in this process.

First of all, people have the ability to make a choice to cope with loss in a direct way to improve things.  Methods for doing this are found in The Dog Cancer Survival Guide.  Dogs are not as able to make decisions like this and act on them.  People can also help dogs during hard times, whether in helping them deal with cancer or with their own mourning.  Guardianship includes brain chemistry modification, which those of you who have read the Guide know is a scientifically proven step in improving both life quality and health (longevity). In other words, helping a dog cope with loss or cancer through daily steps to improve her feelings of stability, competency, social connectedness, self esteem, and life quality makes a huge difference.

Another difference in how dogs and humans deal with loss is that dogs do not have what is called “preemptive grieving”.  This is when a person anticipates the loss of a loved one before it happens.  Preemptive grieving can be harmful if excessive, and needs to be dealt with to insure effective guardianship.  It is hard to be a good guardian through the mental fog of excessive preemptive grief.  Some people experience very extended grieving after a loss as well. Sometimes this grief may even turn into a syndrome now called prolonged grief disorder, which may require psychological treatment.

Dogs, on the other hand,  live mostly in the moment.  And this is a healthy state most of the time because it is a way of living that tends to make a happier life.  Grief for its own sake is not an accomplishment, and this is one of the great lessons our dogs can teach us about life.  Most often, they  grieve appropriately, pick up the pieces, and then move on.

And that’s what they would want us to do to.

Best,

Dr D

 

 

 

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  1. Jewelyn on March 21, 2013 at 9:24 am

    One of my dogs died President’s Day, before she died I’d noticed she kept siding up to me which she seldom did as she was very independent, she used to lay on her bed and watch me but I guess she also knew I was sick and I did not know it. At any rate when she died my other dog stopped eating until I had a talk with her last week whereas I told her I knew our friend had left us and that I missed her as much as she did but that she was in a better place and that she wanted for her to live a normal happy life and to eat, this is no lie 15 minutes later she ate and I have no had a problem since. For this dog mourning the loss of her friend was way too long, she was very depressed as much as my husband still who misses our baby tremendously. so I think we all grieve in different ways and sometimes our dogs pick up on our emotions as well and the sooner we can get back to “normal” the better. Dr. Dressler you help me enormously when you had just started your site when my other GSD died of cancer given 2 weeks at best your advice which I followed gave her 5 months w/o pain…thank you!!

    • Dr. Demian Dressler on March 26, 2013 at 4:33 pm

      Dear Jewelyn, thanks for your post…keep fighting the good fight.
      All my best
      Dr D

  2. Millie on July 16, 2012 at 9:07 am

    I agree dogs grieve when they lose a loved one. I saw with with my father’s dog several years ago. My Dad was dying with cancer and had made a choice to die at home and the dog was there throughout his illness. 6 days before he died he was in and out of consciousness and one of us stayed at his bedside, with his dog at the foot of the bed, day and night. The dog knew something was different and he wanted to be near Dad. He would only leave the room to go outside for a few minutes and he ate very little for those 6 days. He would not leave the room otherwise. The night before Dad died the dog wouldn’t go in the room at all. We knew the end was near and it appeared the dog did as well. After Dad’s death I helped my mother clean out Dad’s clothes. A couple days later we couldn’t find the dog and we went looking for him. He had gone to the basement and found a pair of Dad’s work overalls we had missed and there was this big German Shepherd dog laying at the bottom of the hanging overalls looking like he lost his best friend, which he had! I experienced a dog’s grief first hand.

  3. Diane C Nicholson on July 16, 2012 at 5:07 am

    That’s a great piece.

    Having worked with grieving parents as well as having gone through the deaths of two children myself, I’ve always been interested in grief, whether human or other animals.

    Although none of us knows for sure, it appears that most animals grieve. Crows accumulate and pay respects to their dead, as do elephants and probably many more than we realize.

    Dairy cows (and so many other “food” animals) grieve their newborns, year after year, as each is taken away shortly after birth.

    We’ve all had experiences with animal grief. My young filly grieved her dear friend, our very old pony, and stood at the corner of the paddock, looking over his grave for 2 weeks.

    My Belgian shepherd, a velcro dog who wanted to be at my side every second, lay in the corner of the living room, eating only when I fed her by hand, looking horribly forlorn, also for 2 weeks, when her best friend, Barney, died.

    When one of my animals dies, I make certain that the others see the body so that they can assimilate it.

    But I’m not so sure that I agree that dogs (and cats) do not have preemptive grief. My old dog, Suki, 17 and diagnosed with a large splenic tumour 19 months ago, is getting close to the end. Not from the tumour, amazingly enough– we did no treatment– but from severe senility that becomes worse daily. Lately both of my cats have been sniffing her in a highly unusual manner. They stay around her mouth and eyes. Afterwards, they rub against her, which is not their normal activity.

    And I’ve had dogs that became depressed days before one of their pack members died or had to be put down. I think much more goes on than we have any idea.

    But you’re correct– they tend to live in the moment and carry on faster than we.

    Conversely, my experience with grieving my animals is that it is as intense as grieving a much loved human, but does not last nearly as long. Maybe that is their final gift to us.

  4. Susan on July 16, 2012 at 12:56 am

    Dogs live in the moment, and they also accept the natural cycle of birth and death much more easily than do we. Although they don’t have the preemptive grieving that humans do (our poor little brains… a blessing and a curse) they also don’t cycle through the ‘what if’s’ and guilt that their people do. When they grieve, it is a period of honour and respect, marking the life that they had shared. What we hope to avoid is dragging our surviving companions into the pit of grief, guilt and despair where our humanity wants to take us. So many animals feel and mirror their guardian’s mourning, and this can lead to so many stress-based health problems for both. And each day spent in excessive grief is a day of joy lost. When we lose a loved one, respect, honour, mourn and remember, but know that it is pre-ordained and that there are living, breathing companions at our side who need to LIVE. How sad, if the death of one brings the down-turn of another. The end is but a drop in the ocean of days, months and years of health and joy. Move to the joy, remember the beautiful photos, and rejoice in the opportunity taken to share that life. Honor it by holding it as a beacon in the days to come. Share that joy with those remaining.