“Grief,” writes Hannah Waters in Scientific American, “is the price we pay for friendship.”
It’s a part of the deal. In order to share love with the beings around us, we sign the agreement that one of us will pass before the other and acknowledge that it will hurt immensely.
Different forms of loss hit people in unique ways, but the general graph of grief follows a predictable pattern—the ones who are closest hurt the most to lose.
The Pain of Losing a Pet
When you lose a pet, the ache can be just as bad or worse than the ache that comes from losing a human. An animal bursts into your life, serves as your best and most trusted confidante for a decade, then leaves—abruptly. It’s indescribably hard.
You start to realize all of the things you didn’t before. The underlying meaning of their daily presence becomes clear and you’re left to feel every ounce of emotion you ever had for them.
The den that dogs carve out in our hearts is especially deep because they, too, are very emotionally intelligent. Your dog loves you about as much as, or more than you love them. That’s part of what brings us so close, and we slide into a feedback loop of love that produces some of the most meaningful relationships on planet earth.
We know that this process ends and leads to incredible sadness for ourselves, but what is the experience like for dogs when they lose the ones they love?
Do Dogs Grieve?
It's evident that many dogs grieve, although there isn't enough scientific evidence to make that claim definitively.
They might become withdrawn or depressed. They might paw at the leash their deceased parent used to pick up each morning. They might gaze at the spot where their pet sibling used to lay on the couch.
As those things start to happen in the wake of loss, your dog might be gradually recognizing the reality of the situation. There’s no way (that we know) for dogs to immediately grasp the death of another unless they’re there to witness it.
A Slow Process
When a sibling or companion dies out of the house, your dog might simply feel the weight of their absence until they piece together that someone isn’t coming back home. That process could be slow.
They might not dwell as much in the higher brain about the details of the loss, but research into our own brains tells us that grief weaves through memories, nervous systems, and immediate experiences. Those things, in large part, occur deeper down in the brain rather than in the frontal lobe and neocortex.
Instead, the emotional center of the brain is the limbic system. This is an ancient component of the brain that emerged long before our large frontal lobes did. In large part, the emotional experience is directed and produced by the limbic system.
Dogs are also equipped with limbic systems much like our own.
Canine & Human Brain Similarities
As we move inward from the neocortex and closer to the brain stem, we start sharing more and more brain chemistry with dogs. This is because humans and dogs were once the same species, so the areas of our brains that we share often produce the same results in modern life.
For example, the experience of anxiety in dogs is one that humans can empathize with because we feel it too, and anxiety comes from the same parts of our brains as does the dog’s anxiety.
Many of the emotional and cognitive centers of our brains are shared with dogs, although we enjoy them in different proportions in terms of mass, importance, and function.
Why Dog Emotions are Similar to Our Own
We struggle to empathize with a dog's feeling of grief because we know dogs don't have the same ability to think about the loss that we do. Take the thoughts away, and how could the emotion look the same between species?
Think of the last time you were hooked by your emotions. When was the last time you behaved in a way that was out of line with your values or at odds with your best attempts at thinking logically?
Maybe your parent unintentionally poked at an insecurity and you responded with a little too much heat. Maybe you were cut off or disrupted in traffic and you sent that all-too-familiar bird flying.
Those situations occur because your emotional hardware effectively overrides your logical software. Your brain defers to emotions because swift emotional reactions keep us safe in dangerous situations. That doesn't help us when we're at a family dinner, but it certainly helps when you encounter an angry Grizzly bear.
The Same Thing is True for Dogs
This emotional override happens to dogs as well. A beloved dog might be triggered by something and behave in a way that they would never otherwise behave.
The point of this aside is that grief is one of the most powerful emotions there is, and powerful emotions emerge mainly from the limbic system. Dogs also have limbic systems that guide their emotions, and while human grief is partly intellectual, the majority of the experience comes from a part of the brain that we share with our furry friends.
That isn't to say that the experience is the same in both species, but it's a point in favor of the idea that we can empathize with a dog's grief. This article will work through three main ideas in an effort to illuminate how dogs might grieve.
First, we’ll look at a 2022 grief study published on over 400 Italian dogs.
Second, we’ll look at human grief and grieving (which are two different things) and draw parallels to dogs.
- Third, we’ll discuss what these datapoints might mean about the experiences of dogs when they grieve.
Our hope is that this article and the linked resources contained can help you and your dog in some way.
Italian Canine Grief Study
A review of an Italian study published in Nature starts out by setting the score on what we currently know about canine grief—turns out, there is almost no scientific literature on the subject.
People haven’t studied the grieving process of dogs before, at least not in very much depth. So, in some ways, the 2022 study we’re discussing is a pioneer work on the subject.
The objective of the study was to “identify and quantify grief-related reactions over the loss of a companion dog in an Italian pet dog population.” To gauge the results, they used the established “Mourning Dog Questionnaire.”
426 Italian owners who owned two dogs, one of which having recently passed away, were given the survey to assess their bereived dog’s emotional state as well as their own personal emotional state.
It’s also worth noting that 92.5 percent of the dogs included had lived with their deceased companion for over a year. This could be an indication that the dogs were given enough time to create a bond significant enough to grieve over.
Owner Behavior & Effect on Surviving Dog
One hiccup in the study was the idea that the surviving dogs after the death will behave differently when their pet parent is grieving. Many of the normal activities and interactions of life will be subdued as a human owner grieves the loss of a pet.
As a result, the remaining animal might mirror those behaviors and emotions. While that’s a grief-type response, it’s not necessarily full-blown grief.
The dogs studied might have behaved "normally" if their owner wasn’t grieving; temporarily losing the normal love and support of an owner could lead a dog to behave differently.
That can make the results a little more conviluted. It was difficult to get a one-to-one relationship between the loss of the companion and the experiences of grief.
The study accounted for this interaction by scoring the pet owner’s reported personal emotions alongside those of their dog’s. The comparison of these two scores gave researchers a little margin of error in case there was an unnatural effect on the dog’s behavior.
They leaned on the side of safety when it came to the figures in their results.
The Results of The Study
After the death of a companion,
- Attention-seeking behavior increased for 67% of dogs
- The desire to play reduced for 57% of dogs
- 46% of dogs reduced their activity
- 35% of dogs slept more
- 35% of dogs were more fearful
- 32% of dogs ate less than usual
- 30% of dogs showed an increase in vocalizations
Almost a quarter of owners reported that these behaviors persisted for more than 6 months. Just 13% of owners claimed no change in behavior by the remaining dog.
We know this is easy math, but to flip the statistic for a change of perspective, that means 87% of dogs studied showed signs associated with grief.
More time lived together correlated with less play, lower levels of activity, and more sleep. Alternatively, increased time lived together showed no correlation with fearfulness, vocalization, attention seeking, or the duration of changed behaviors.
In other words, dogs who lose long-time friends might be more inclined to be lethargic and low-energy in the wake of the death. The behaviors that require personal effort (barking, seeking attention, expressing fear) did not change with time.
Conclusion: the study concludes by saying “even if we recognize the importance of these results, we still cannot confirm it was grief. More research is clearly needed[.]”
Interview With Mary-Frances O’Connor
Mary-Frances O’Connor is head of the Grief, Loss, and Social Stress program at the University of Arizona. She has dedicated two decades of research to the understanding of how the brain grieves.
Her book The Grieving Brain: The Surprising Science of How We Learn from Love and Loss contains 5 key insights that she lists in this interview. We’ll focus on 4 of them in this article.
While her work focuses on humans, the insights she lists help us get a better definition of grief as it pertains to dogs. Let’s look at what the following 4 insights about human grief tell us about canine grief.
1. The Grief/Grieving Difference
O’Connor’s first insight is that there’s a clear difference between grief and grieving.
Grief is the immediate shock and pain that comes the moment you become aware that something or someone has died. It’s the thunderbolt of confusion, pain, and trauma.
This immediate experience is traumatizing and it contributes to the way you frame the grieving process as you move forward. Grieving, on the other hand, is the long process afterward that never quite ends.
When someone does, you will likely be grieving them forever. Although the harsh pain diminishes, there’s no telling if you’ll ever fully resolve or accept the loss.
How this applies to dogs:
Unless a dog witnesses a loved one die, odds are that they do not experience grief, as it were. Instead, they might recognize the absence and go through the process of grieving for a period of time.
2. The Brain’s Attachment to Loved Ones
The next insight we get is that the brain doesn’t really know the person is gone—it just thinks they’re away.
Our brains are mechanical in that way, whereas our minds know the reality of the situation. Still, the brain is calling the shots, releasing the neurochemicals, and conducting the emotions.
O’Connor says “these two streams of information—from our memory and from this attachment belief—conflict.” In other words, we have two conflicting beliefs held in our brains at the same time:
- The person (or dog) is just somewhere else and will come back.
- The person (or dog) has passed away and will never come back.
This is part of what makes the grieving process so difficult—we’re not fully capable of letting go of the person because the brain isn’t wired to.
Most dogs don’t understand that their loved one has died, so they’re left with the process of missing and missing and missing…
Dogs miss us from the moment we leave the house, so losing an owner or a good friend for good is likely very hard for them.
3. Human Regret Convolutes Grief
O’Connor says that the “should’ve, would’ve, could’ve” process interferes with our ability to accept the situation. These regretful thoughts intercept our visceral thoughts of pain and grief.
They’re sort of a trick our brain plays to make the situation easier by substituting regret for pain. Naturally, there’s an endless number of things you could say you “should have done,” but the reality is that you would never have prevented the person from passing away.
This is one of the things that (almost universally) makes grieving harder for human beings. That’s a tough truth for us people, but it’s kind of a good thing for dogs.
Dog’s aren’t dwelling in language or regret about what they could have done, so their grieving might not be as drawn-out. In other words, they just experience the emotions naturally as they come up.
They don’t postpone the grief process by thinking it over and over. They just feel, adjust, and move on in the present moment.
4. Love Shapes Our Brains
Research into animals and humans alike tells us that our brain chemistry adjusts when we love one another. Strong bonds actually make a physical imprint on our brains via the connections, memories, and experiences we have.
This is true for us just as much as it is for dogs. This is also just another way of saying that we don’t forget the ones we love because they’re imprinted into our memories.
Dogs don’t have strong episodic memories, though, so there's a smaller photo album of experiences to page through as they're missing someone.
Instead, they have strong “associative” memories. If a dog smells the old t-shirt of an owner who passed away years ago, for example, that's when he’ll remember the owner. He probably won’t lay around thinking through memories of the owner for extended periods of time, though.
Still, it’s impossible to pinpoint the emotion that runs through the dog who gets a whiff of his long-lost best friend. What's clear is that those old memories, in one way or another, are always going to be there.
So, Do Dogs Experience Grief?
There are two ways to look at this issue—the first is to look at it as though you were a clinical researcher.
The scientists and researchers out there might be leery to say that dogs definitely grieve. They might believe in their hearts that dogs grieve, but the scientific perspective requires more proof before a definitive statement is made.
So, in that respect, there’s no proof of dog grief.
Dogs Most Likely Experience Grief
On the other hand, there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that dogs grieve and our personal experiences are certainly valid in this instance. Who knows your dog better than you do?
When you see your pooch acting withdrawn and somber in the wake of a death, there's probably something inside of you that intuitively knows what they're feeling.
Further, the evidence from the Italian study shows that many dogs certainly change their behavior in the wake of a death. Mary-Frances O’Connor’s research tells us that grief has lasting physiological changes on our brains, and we also know that dog brains and human brains share many of the same parts.
So, if we had to put our finger down on an answer, we’d say that dogs definitely grieve in their own ways. How could they not? They’re incredibly loving beings who have evolved alongside us to be there for us, depend upon us, and complement our emotions.
So, the next time a dog in your life loses someone close to them, spend a little extra time with them and stock up on a few of their favorite treats. They’ll probably be hurting in their own way, and what’s better when you’re hurting than some one-on-one time with your best friend?