Grief and Pets: How Do Dogs Say Goodbye?

Nov 8, 2021

When you have two dogs (or three, or four!) who are joined together as one happy pack, it’s a total joy to watch them spend their days together. But suddenly that day arrives when a friend asks how old they are, and you realize they have reached what your veterinarian would call "senior years," even though they still seem like teenagers to you.

How did time fly by so fast?

How will you even get along without them – and how will they get along without each other? You’ve always thought of them as a pair or a pack. How would one be if left alone? Do dogs feel grief the way you do, and if they do, what can you do to help them when that inevitable (but hopefully far-off) day arrives?

Do our dogs love their animal companions?

There are some skeptics who think that dogs can’t really feel or express feelings like sadness or loss. As a society who still uses animals for food, it’s uncomfortable to think about their feelings, so some people would simply prefer not to.

However, as a pet parent, you look into those deep soulful eyes and are welcomed by that expressive wagging tail every morning. You’ve seen your dog act frightened, anxious, happy, afraid, or in pain. You’ve watched your dogs play and snuggle together. In fact, dogs exhibit many of the same signs we ourselves show when we experience the very same emotions. Maybe not the tail-wagging, but definitely the snuggling (and unfortunately – the anxiety)!

The emotional lives of animals is a fascinating subject, and we can be sure tons of scientific research will continue to explore whether or pets love us and one another. My dogs Angie and Bella came to me ‘bonded.' The depth of their attachment was remarkable. Bella was much younger than Angie and could do a lot more, but she steadfastly refused to leave her sister’s side. If given the choice of a ‘treat’, “park” or Angie, she was paws down Angie every time. Bella would never leave her behind. She didn’t really think for herself, she followed Angie’s lead, which is why I called Angie “the brains in the operation”. They came to know and trust me, but they were the main unit.

I’m grateful they had each other. Every living being should be so lucky to have such a relationship. Researchers have discovered that animals who play together experience a significant increase in oxytocin, just as we human experience an increase when we interact positively with other humans and animals. It would appear that animals get joy from one another just as we experience joy with our human and animal friends.

Animals don’t have spoken language to express love and loss, so grief certainly can be hard to attribute to animals if we don’t see obvious outward signs of sadness. But even we humans physically express these emotions in vastly different ways.

How do dogs mourn and what can I do to help them?

Love and grief are highly personal, and both people and pets will cope with loss in their own way. Some people really need to talk, sharing stories and seeking face-to-face help dealing with the loss of someone beloved. Other people are quiet and keep their pain to themselves. But we still we give that quiet friend a call, show up on their doorstep to help with chores, or to go for a walk or take them out to dinner. Just because a friend is quiet, doesn’t mean they aren’t suffering when they lose someone they care about.

You might want to think of your dog in the same way. Your dog might be outwardly wrecked over the loss of their lifelong companion, or they could be silently wondering where their friend has gone.

We took Bella with us to the vet when the time came so she’d know that Angie didn’t just disappear. We are lucky that our vet has a special space where we could all be on the ground together, quiet and calm. We all stayed until Angie was asleep, I’m glad we did.

For her part, I think Angie hung on longer than her pain would have wanted her to, because she knew Bella depended on her. We told Angie that it ‘was okay, we would take care of Bella for her’. The day this happened it was clear that it was ‘the day’, we all did the best we could.

Your own grieving dog’s behavior could change in any number of ways if they have lost a beloved companion:

  • Searching or crying
  • Loss of appetite
  • Increased anxiety when left alone
  • Increased nudging or following you for extra attention
  • A generally sad demeanor

To help your dog deal with grief, spend extra time with them. Their daily routine has just been smashed – they no longer have their companion to play, eat, sniff around the yard, and stretch out alongside.

  • Divert their attention with things they love: a drive in the car, extra walks, sunning on the porch, or snuggling on the couch.
  • Give them something to do when you are gone by hiding treats around the house.
  • Praise them for good behavior and ignore inappropriate behavior. If your dog is pacing or crying, it can be hard not to go comfort them with a treat or a hug. Instead, try calling them over and coaxing them with another activity that you can praise them for, like a walk, some of their usual training tricks, or some playtime outdoors.

If your dog truly seems to be in a funk of depression, don’t let them go too many days without eating or drinking. Talk to your veterinarian, as their may be appetite stimulants, behavior modifying medications, or stress reducing pheromones that can help.

Loss can lead to finding a new voice.

You know what’s amazing? Sometimes the hole that is left by the loss of one pet starts being filled as the remaining dog in the home blossoms in unexpected ways. If your surviving dog always used to let her more headstrong friend lead the way, she could surprisingly grow more adventurous now that she is focused more on herself and on you.

Bella now cocks her head when we speak! I think prior she was happy to hear ‘wah wah wah’ like the teacher on Charlie Brown, because whatever Angie thought, worked for her. Now she’s gotta figure stuff out on her own. One thing she has figured out is the couch. Angie couldn’t get on the couch, and ramps weren’t an option for her. Bella has no such constraints. Personally, I’m super happy for slipcovers, my fair lady is a fur and schmutz monster. Bella also makes a stellar sous chef now. She is laser-focused for any veg that might come her way.

If one of your dogs was a concerned nursemaid or “guiding eye dog” to an older canine companion, he may start to frolic with a unexpectedly puppylike abandon as an only pet. Now that their old routine has been disrupted, your dog may rearrange their single-dog life in a way that allows other parts of their personality to shine through.

As pack animals, dogs focus strongly on one another so it’s no surprise to learn that they adjust their own behavior to create harmony, just as we do with people we love. While the loss of a close companion can bring unsettled sadness, it can also open a window for your dog to find or express a new voice. Suddenly she has the freedom to be just herself, instead of half of a pair.

Should you get your dog a new friend?

While you may be tempted to get another animal companion to head off your dog’s loneliness, especially if they are now an only pet, you may want to hold off on this for just a little while. Your dog may really enjoy some time as an only pet. Give them a little space and time to show you how they feel. We are still figuring out if Bella needs a “pet." She’s super happy to play with her buddies across the street and she is breed tolerant, a friend to all – both dogs and cats. The yard chippies don’t even run from her.

Immediately adding a brand-new pet could compound the stress of losing their buddy and having their long-time routine turned on its head. If your dog seems lost and alone, visit a dog-owning friend, the dog park, or even consider fostering another dog for a shelter or rescue. If your pup shows you that they do really get joy from the companionship of other dogs, a new canine in the home may truly be the prescription for a new and joyful life.

Sharing your own grief over the loss of your pet

You have your own grief to work though, too, right?  Even when you’re prepared for the loss of a pet, the depth of your sorrow can really catch you by surprise.

Not everyone around you will understand what you are going through when you lose a pet, and they really may not get your worry over whether the other pets in your home are grieving, too. You will probably need to honestly explain to your supervisor or co-workers why you are feeling so down, but when it comes to really spilling your feelings or looking for love and support, find pet-owning friends or coworkers who you know have a strong bond with their own dogs. They’ll understand how you feel and they are already comfortable about talking about their love for animals.

Don’t spend your energy worrying about people who say, “It’s just a pet.” Other pet-parents can help support you with their understanding. Your love is real, It’s one relationship that is always full of gratitude. No wonder we love our pets!

If you find that you really need more opportunities to talk out your feelings with someone who knows what you are going through, it’s likely that there’s a pet loss support group near you. It may be run through a veterinarian’s office, pet hospice, animal shelter, veterinary school, or professional therapist’s office. Your veterinarian may know if there are groups nearby, or you can just search for “pet loss support near me” in an online search. There are also online and phone support lines with trained, pet-loving people available to talk:

Losing a fur-friend doesn’t mean losing what they gave you.

Without my sweet Angie as my muse, there may have never been a dooloop . I can say without a doubt, that without both Angie and Bella, making me do a ‘rhymic gymnastics routine on every walk, I wouldn’t have even thought to invent a dooloop and start this grand dog poo adventure. Either lady would have been a handful, don’t get me wrong, but having them both meant something needed to be created to juggle the poo they created. They came to me extremely frightened, connected and sweet. To us, this meant they deserved the softest second act we could provide. But honestly, walking the dog shouldn’t be a crying situation, which is nearly was, every time. The dooloop was a tool for sanity, not a vanity – although NOT holding onto bags of poop is an upgrade in every case.

What has your love for your dog inspired you to do?

Cherish those memories! I look forward to making even more with my Bella. Do you want to see her sweet, wrinkled face? Follow our journey together on Facebook.

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