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Do Dogs Grieve Their Owner's Passing?

By: Dr. Nicholas Dodman

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As victims in the terrorist attacks are recovered, the painful aftershocks will continue with more memorials and, inevitably, funerals. The nation prays that the pain can somehow, in time, become bearable for the families.

Pets may also show signs of loss and mourning in ways that the family may not recognize. Although somewhat different, they do feel the loss of loved ones. Many have a significant degree of attachment to their owner that leads to anxiety and distress when even short-term separation is thrust upon them, let alone bereavement.

Perhaps, the most famous dog-grieving story of all time is that of Greyfriars Bobby, a Skye terrier owned by a Mr. John Gray of Edinburgh, Scotland. Mr. Gray passed away in 1858 and was buried in Greyfriars Churchyard, Bobby was one of the conspicuous mourners. As time went by he never forgot his deceased master. Every day for the next 14 years until his own death in 1872, Bobby spent each night lying on his master's grave come rain, hail and snow. In honor of Bobby's devotion, a statue and water fountain was erected to his memory in 1873.

Which Dogs Suffer?

Dogs that have the hyper-attachment syndrome of separation anxiety are likely to be hard hit following their owners' demise. Cardinal signs of this all-to-common condition, affecting up to 15 percent of dogs in the United States, are as follows:

  • A checkered history of earlier neglect or multiple owners
  • Excessive following behavior ("Velcro dogs")
  • Pre-departure anxiety as owner prepares to leave
  • Barking, whining or howling immediately after the owner's departure
  • Destructive behavior only in the owner's absence (and often directed toward doors and windows)
  • House soiling only in the owner's absence
  • Loss of appetite when the owner is gone
  • Depression/inactivity in the owner's absence
  • Self-directed licking behavior in the owner's absence (e.g. lick granuloma) or other repetitive, compulsive behavior
  • Excessive greeting behavior on the owner's return

    A score of 5 out of 10 of the above possible signs confirms separation anxiety. Some dogs with separation anxiety are so bonded to one person that if that person leaves the dog with other people in a crowded room he will display full-blown signs of separation anxiety. Such a dog will not take well at all to his owner going away on a trip or, indeed, to the permanent separation caused by death. The dog will panic at first and will eventually become depressed. While we can't ask a dog how he feels, we can (and do) sometimes see all the visible signs of depression in bereft dogs that we see in a recently bereaved or otherwise depressed person.

    Clinical Signs of Mourning in Dogs

  • Lack of energy and interest
  • Absence of play
  • Listlessness/moping
  • Loss of appetite/anorexia
  • Reduced social interactions
  • Increased daytime sleeping
  • Nighttime restlessness/insomnia
  • Weight loss

    In people, post-bereavement depression following the death of a loved one usually begins to decrease. Sometimes it lasts 2 months, and sometimes it lasts longer, requiring medical or psychological help. The same is true in dogs. Some will eventually get over their loss and form new bonds whereas others enter a seemingly interminable funk. The latter cases present a therapeutic challenge.

    Treatment of Dogs for Bereavement-related Depression

  • Where possible, allow time to heal the wounds and merely supply appropriate supportive therapy. Make sure the dog continues to eat and drink, even if this means assisted feeding of favorite foods.

  • Provide company during the daytime and at night. Have the dog sleep in the bedroom with his caretakers/remaining human/animal family.

  • Provide distractions during the day such as toys, delicious food treats, games, excursions and so on, so that the dog is gainfully employed and entertained. Some coaxing may be necessary.

  • Attempt to interest the dog in interacting with people or dogs. Sometimes a visitor dog to the house will stimulate the affected dog's appetite and activity by a process known as social facilitation.

  • Daily exercise is extremely important as it has a calming, soothing, and mood elevating effect. Aerobic (running) exercise is best if this can be summoned.

  • Medication, as a last resort, in refractory cases. Human anti-depressants work well in this situation. Either older tricyclic anti-depressants like amitriptyline or imipramine, or more modern anti-depressants like fluoxetine (Prozac®), sertraline (Zoloft®) and paroxetine (Paxil®) can be used. Each has its own unique advantages in terms of mood elevation and stabilization; and each has its own slightly different therapeutic profile and list of potential side effects. Remember, these drugs must be prescribed by a veterinarian – doses for humans are very different from what dogs are prescribed.

    Following acute loss of a closely bonded owner, dogs can suffer the pangs of separation anxiety or depression just as people do. The extent of the suffering is directly proportional to the strength of the bond with the owner and is a function of the dog's reliance and perceived dependence on that person. Owners who feed into a dog's intense dependence on them are more likely to have dogs that do not cope well when left alone for any reason. The emotional pain dogs feel on their owners death is an extension of, and extreme, protracted version of separation anxiety. While we all enjoy a close bond with our pets, and children for that matter, it is as well to prepare them to stand on their own four/two feet (respectively) so that they are not adrift should anything happen to us.

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