How to Help a Grieving Dog When Their Owner Dies
When my mother passed away, it took a while for our dog Scooter to understand that she was really gone. When he finally did, his health declined rapidly, leading to a frightening vet visit where I was told he might not even make it through the night.
The good news is that with excellent veterinary care and several visits on my part to the animal hospital, Scooter made a full recovery. Despite the loss of my mom, somehow Scooter found it in his heart to love me and went on to live another 10 years! Scroll to the bottom for the full story Scooter's decline and recovery.
Do Dogs Grieve When Their Owner Passes?
Yes. If your dog recently lost a cherished companion—human or otherwise—it is very normal for them to mourn that loss. While some dogs, like Scooter, show physical symptoms of grief, others may only display behavioral changes. Some dogs may not display any noticeable changes at all, but be grieving nonetheless.
No matter how your pup's grief manifests, there are things you can do to help.
Signs of a Grieving Dog
- A decline of energy and interest in things that typically are of interest
- Change in or absence of play
- Pervasive sadness or listlessness/moping
- Refusing to eat or reduced appetite
- Fewer or reduced interactions with others
- Sleeping more frequently during the day
- Less sleep or fitful nighttime sleep
- Declining weight
How to Help a Grieving Dog
The first step is acknowledging that your dog is in the grieving process. Luckily, there are things you can do to help your dog through this time.
- Provide additional love and affection. Extra affection will help your dog through this troubling time. This might mean you will need to spend extra time with your dog and/or supply special treats in order to increase food intake.
- Stick to their usual routine. One way to relieve grief-related stress in dogs is to maintain their routine as closely as possible (i.e. feeding and walking them at the same time as usual).
- Be patient. Just like with humans, dogs need time to grieve. Most dogs will come out of their grieving process and form new attachments. This may take as little as a few days or weeks to several months.
- Contact your vet. If you are concerned with your dog’s behavior, do not hesitate to contact a vet. Explain what the circumstances are and what behaviors your dog is exhibiting. Getting help is a great way to prevent another potential loss, especially if you too are suffering from the loss of a loved one.
Ways to Help Your Pet Cope With Loss
Our Story: Scooter's Reaction to My Mother's Passing
It appeared to be another typical day in Scooter’s life as the little champagne-colored poodle mix happily raced to the front door when he heard the familiar sound of the car. This was the day that Scooter’s world came crashing down; this was the day that he would learn that his beloved master of eight years was no longer alive.
The changes actually happened some weeks earlier, but Scooter had not fully understood what had occurred. Scooter spent the first several months of his life living with me, as I was a then 24-year-old teacher who couldn’t resist taking the little fella under my wing. After realizing that apartment living and a new puppy wouldn’t mix, I asked my parents to take in the cute ball of fur who loved scooting around the floor chasing after anything that moved. After all, my mother and father had an aging dog of their own and a puppy would keep the older dog company and also provide a wonderful pet after their mature canine passed on.
Not wanting to disappoint their daughter, my parents took in Scooter and enjoyed eight years together.
It was quite a surprise when after eight years, I learned that I would be getting my dog back as my parents announced that they would be downsizing from my childhood home into a condominium. My parents felt that it was unfair for Scooter to be without a yard to play in, and so it was decided that since I had moved from an apartment into a home of my own with a big back yard that it was time for Scooter to return me.
Scooter Was Deeply Attached to Mom
It was a good thing that we only lived less than a mile from my parents, as Scooter had grown extremely fond and protective of my mother and being apart was a bit confusing at first. Scooter quickly adapted to his new home, as he loved the back yard as well as me, becoming just as protective of me as he had of my mother. Scooter looked forward to seeing my mother on a regular basis and learned the sound of her car as it would pull into the driveway. It was Scooter's custom to hear the car and start barking, and with a smile on his face, he would run to the door to greet my mother.
One January, I tried to explain to Scooter that his former master had died, but it didn’t seem to sink in until one day that March. To Scooter, the familiar sound of the car signaled that he was about to be greeted by the woman who took care of him for eight years and who still snuck his favorite treat to him despite the fact that his new master frowned on such behavior.
The Sound of Her Car Caused a Frantic Search
That chilly day in March marked the day that Scooter really learned that his former master was no longer alive. It started out with the familiar sound of the car in the driveway and Scooter hauling off in a mad dash to the door, barking loudly to say hello to his good friend. It wasn’t until the person at the other side of the door wasn’t my mother, but rather my brother, that Scooter knew something was wrong.
Scooter sniffed my brother’s pant leg and then scooted past him because he was certain that our mom must have been coming up the walk. When Scooter got to the front porch and my mom wasn’t there, he was undaunted and tore off into another part of the house in search of his friend.
My brother and I didn’t realize what was happening at first, but after Scooter ran from room to room looking frantically and barking loudly, we figured out what was unfolding. Scooter was looking for our mom. Little did he know that my brother was now driving the car that once belonged to our mother.
Scooter Experienced Drastic Changes in Behavior
It was then that I scooped Scooter into my arms and began to cry and once again told Scooter that the person that we both loved had died three months earlier. Somehow, on this day, Scooter seemed to understand.
About three days after the incident, I noticed that Scooter wasn’t acting like himself. The normally happy-go-lucky dog was very sullen and withdrawn. He didn’t even try to chase after Salem, the black cat who was also a member of our household. Soon after discovering Scooter’s behavior, I witnessed that my dog was not eating or drinking. The situation was very serious, so I took Scooter to the veterinarian that he had seen since his puppyhood.
His Grief Quickly Led to Extreme Health Issues
The vet immediately took Scooter under his care and recognized just how grave the situation was. The vet told me that Scooter’s kidneys were failing and that he may not make it through the night. The doctor explained that I should consider staying by Scooter’s side at the hospital for an hour that evening, and if the dog were to live, I should visit him in the animal hospital at least twice a day just to comfort him and be by his side.
Luckily, He Made a Full Recovery
It was a very long night, but by morning, test results showed gradual improvement. This was wonderful news for me, as I couldn’t think of bearing the loss of my mother and my dog within a three-month span. The vet saw me in the morning and said he had never seen an animal survive under such conditions.
While scratching his head, the vet said to me “I cannot explain why Scooter’s kidney’s failed, or how he lived, but I need to know if Scooter has undergone any trauma or stress recently.” I recalled how Scooter had recently reacted to the sound of my mother’s car and asked if the death of my mother could have triggered the illness in my dog. The vet responded by saying that animals could sometimes react physically to the death of their master.
Please Take Your Dog's Grief Seriously
Thankfully, Scooter made a full recovery, but if I had not given credence to his grief and taken him to the vet, he would have died that night. If you think your dog may be experiencing grief, it is critical that you take it seriously. Don't make the mistake of thinking your pup's grief isn't real because "he's just a dog."
What Do You Think?
Do Dog’s grieve for the loss of their owners?
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2011 Judy HBerg