Dog Mourns Loss of Owner, Too: How to Help a Grieving PetPublished September 2, 2011
We often think of pets as simplified versions of our best selves. They are playful, curious, affectionate, forgiving, and undeterred by failure. Less commonly thought of, though no less true, is their capacity to experience the emotional hardships of loss and loneliness.
When a beloved pet dies, there is always a thoughtful parent or friend to help ease the passing. But what about when a dog or cat mourns the loss of an owner? When pets lose their owners, do they have any guarantee of a similar consolation? How do our pets grieve when their happy home is inexplicably pulled away and the soothing whir of their owner’s voice isn’t there to help?
Dog Mourns Loss of Owner: Their Best Friend’s Gone Away
“The only way I can explain it is like when people have twins, or maybe a close family member, and they just know something's wrong,” Liz Keller, CEO of Glen Wild Animal Shelter, told me. “They know that the owner has passed when it happens. There's some kind of connection there, and there's a sadness you can see.”
Like many animal shelters around the country, the upstate New York based Glen Wild sees pets that have just lost their owners on a regular basis, four or five cases a week and sometimes more. There is a wealth of evidence that shows that animal mourning includes many of the same behaviors and rituals as humans. Magpies have been observed in funeral rituals, geese droop their bodies and their eyes sink back into the sockets. Dogs who mourn can become lethargic and stop eating, while cats will retreat into hiding places to avoid confrontation. When I was growing up, my own dog howled every night for nearly a year after his mother died.
“I believe that they know something happened, they seem to always be looking for the owner,” Keller said. “I used to work as a dog control officer and people would abandon dogs off in this wetlands area, they'd drop their dogs off in this location and the dogs would actually stay there and wait, thinking the owner was going to come back and pick them up.”
Dogs are especially capable of forming emotional bonds with humans. A 2009 study at the University of Lincoln found dogs are the only known mammal other than humans to show a “left gaze bias,” a tendency where people tend to shift their eyes to the left when looking at someone because the right side of a person’s face has been shown to express emotion more clearly than the left.
This connection can be so strong that it can consume a dog with a special intensity compounded by the loss a caregiver. One of the Glen Wild dogs, a Chihuahua, had lost its master as a result of domestic abuse. A young woman had been killed by her boyfriend, and the dog refused to leave his owner’s side long after the crime had taken place. Clearly, the dog mourned the loss its owner.
“When the field officers came in and found the body, the dog was sleeping on her chest,” Keller said.
Dog Mourns Loss of Owner: Building a New Bond
As a pet deals with the transition from a long familiar home to a strange uncle’s apartment or noisy shelter, a pet’s sorrow can be dramatically intensified. In helping a pet through this period the best thing to do is give the animal some space and work on creating new routines to habituate it to its new surroundings.
“A lot of time people feel bad for them so they over-compensate and that's not really healthy,” Keller observed. “You can learn a lot from just observing them.”
If a dog was used to going on an afternoon walk, for instance, you may find it signals a new owner by moving closer to the front door or becoming more restless at certain times. The important thing is not to force anything on the animal but instead try to keep its routine as normalized as possible so it won’t feel overwhelmed.
“Cats don't like change at all,” Keller noted. “If they're sad or depressed it shows in that they don't want to eat or they'll just stay secluded for some time before they feel comfortable enough to come out and start interacting with the new family. They hate to be moved.”
As the dog or cat begins to familiarize itself with the new surroundings, make sure to reinforce new routines with affection.
“Spend 15 minutes grooming the dog or, if the dog has short hair, giving it a rubdown,” Kathy Diamond Davis, a dog trainer and author, wrote in The Canine Behavior Series. ”Using your positive training, teach the dog a little trick or--even better--a little task the dog can do for you in your daily routine. The genuine pleasure you will take in the dog's help will come through clearly to the dog.”
Nighttime can be the worst time of day for many sad or depressed animals, amplifying their sense of loss and loneliness while they mourn the loss of an owner. Veterinarian Nicholas Dodman advises letting the dog sleep in your bedroom with you to help it feel less abandoned.
Keller warns of a relapse of anxiety that sometimes happens after weeks or months of improvement and regained energy.
“Anywhere from one month to three months they start to have a little bit of separation anxiety,” she said. “There's a period where they start to worry that they're going to get pulled out of that again.”
“You just have to be a little more diligent when that comes up and take care of any behavior problems they show. Be very supportive with the animal, work with it slowly, do obedience, something to keep it busy. Love is really a big key for everything.”
Make a Plan, Just in Case
“If people love their pet, they want to make sure it's in their power and control to decide who's going to get their pet and what kind of care the pet's going to get [should the owner pass] while the owner's still alive,” Rachel Hirscfeld, an attorney and owner of PetTrustLawer.com (http://www.pett, told me.
“If you're leaving your child with someone when you're going on a trip or something, you think about the same kind of care and choice of people as you'd want to do with your pet. You want to have as many alternates or successors as possible.”
While many people think to include their pets in their wills, there can be a significant time between when a person passes away and when the will can be executed. Indeed, in the hectic period after someone’s death, it’s common for a pet to be left at a shelter while the family is being notified and lawyers are making arrangements for their major assets and debts. Worse still, a pet can be trusted to a relative or neighbor who doesn’t really have an interest in the pet and takes them to the shelter or even suggests that they be put to sleep.
“There are a number of organizations throughout the country that will help you prepare to pass on a pet,” Hirschfeld said. “There are 44 states that have statutory pet trust laws. If you have a pet trust the ownership of the pet can be transferred, and the money you might want to leave aside for their care can be transferred.”
For those not ready to plan a will it can still be a worthwhile to consider about a pet trust in case of an accident or unexpected illness. Without one, transferring pet ownership can be more complicated than might be expected. In 2007, Ellen Degeneres discovered the unexpected complications hidden in many pet adoption agreements when she tried to give her housekeeper a dog that she couldn’t properly care for. Her adoption agreement prevented her from transferring ownership to anyone else and so the shelter reclaimed the dog from her housekeeper causing a painful public controversy.
“If you own a pet you should focus on doing something ahead of time,” Keller said. “If something happened to me I would not want my dog or cat to wind up some place they didn't know.”
It’s hard to imagine the possibility of our pets outliving us, but it happens every day all across the country. It might be painful to think about, but it’s a much more painful experience for them to go through. With a little forethought and planning, that experience can be made a little less traumatic.