Do Dogs Know They're Dying? What Citizen Science Tells Us

While the jury is still out, around 20 percent of people think that dogs know.

Posted Jan 05, 2021

In February 2019, I posted an essay called "Do Dogs Know They're Dying?" with the subtitle "Was Sadie really trying to tell her human companion that Oscar was dying?" Here is a brief summary of that story.

Sadie and Oscar, a senior dog, lived together. One night Oscar seemed to be doing very well and went to bed as usual on his pillow downstairs in the house where he lived. As usual, Sadie, Oscar's best friend, went to sleep near Oscar and all seemed normal. Around midnight, Oscar got up and walked to the steps that led upstairs and tried in vain to gain footing, something he'd never done before. Oscar was sprawled out at the foot of the steps and the noise awoke Sadie and she went over to see what was happening. She sat with Oscar for a few minutes, sniffing his body and whining softly, and then she seemed extremely concerned and flew up the steps and ran directly to the bed where their human was sleeping. By the time their human was able to go down the steps, Oscar had died and Sadie was moping around and seemed out of sorts. She knew something was wrong and wouldn't leave Oscar's body.

Some data about what dogs might know about death and dying

"In my work as a house-call veterinarian specializing in end-of-life care, I saw many incidences of a dying pet’s animal friends acting as if they had some comprehension of the situation. Stories that reveal a pet’s understanding of their own impending death are harder to come by. But I believe my own dog, Duncan, may have had a sense that his end was near." —Dr. Jennifer Coates, Do Pets Know When They Are Going to Die?

I received numerous emails and had a good number of discussions about what might have been going on and decided to do a pilot citizen science project focusing on two questions: "Do you think dogs know they're dying?" And "Do you think dogs know other dogs are dying?" In addition to looking at 23 emails that came in, over the past 18 months I asked another 77 people what they thought or simply listened to their stories, and also considered some side comments about whether dogs knew other nonhuman animals (animals) or humans were passing away. 

Here's what I learned. Of the 100 people who weighed in on these questions:

  • 21 said they were sure dogs know when they, themselves, are dying.
  • 58 said dogs didn't know when they are dying.
  • 21 said they had no idea what was happening in their brains.

Concerning the second question:

  • 47 people felt that dogs knew when others were dying
  • 23 were "certain" or "pretty sure" that dogs didn't know when other dogs (or their humans) were dying
  • And 30 simply had no idea.

Everyone from whom I heard, or who I asked, took these questions seriously. I couldn't find any differences among people who lived with dogs or those who didn't. 

A few people weighed in about how dogs might sense that other dogs are dying. Most thought it was mediated by odors, whereas others thought observable behaviors and vocalizations were important. I wouldn't be surprised if information was conveyed by composite signals that combine with one another, but we really have no idea how messages of impending death are communicated. One respondee opined, "There might be a unique death-specific odor that signaled a dog was at death's door."  

Here are some representative snippets from emails I received about my earlier essay.

—Absolutely and without doubt I believe that they know. Two very recent examples include a sibling pair of staffies age 16 years old. The boy was suffering irreversible neurological changes and he was almost comatose and ready to pass. His sister lay snoring across the room, apparently oblivious to the unfolding event as she slept deeply. The room was silent. In the minute that her brother's soul passed, she stirred from her sleep and woke up, rising from her bed and gently moving over to where we were to offer a farewell sniff to her brother. It was very moving. (From an end-of life veterinarian.)

—When border collie Sport was around 10 years old, my grandpa was going into town, and Sport parked himself in the driveway behind grandpa’s car and wouldn’t move. Eventually someone had to pull him out of the way so grandpa could leave. Sport barked until the car was out of sight. My grandpa died suddenly of a heart attack while he was in town and I’ve always believed Sport knew something wasn’t right—he also died about a month later—he quit eating. I feel he was grieving the loss of my grandpa. 

—I am sure Rupert knew Harriet was nearing the end of her life. He spent more time with her and sniffed her more than usual, and in the last hour of her life he was agitated and continually tried to gain my attention so that I would come over and lie down with them. The third time I did this Harriet took a deep breath and passed away. A few months later, Rupert died. His behavior changed and he became more needy, grouchy, and seemed uncomfortable; it didn't occur to me that he knew he was dying, but his behaviour surely told me something wasn't right.

Most of the stories I received or heard dealt with the question of whether dogs knew other dogs (and in a few cases humans) were dying and the ways in which survivors grieved. Scientific studies along with citizen science clearly show there's little to no doubt that numerous animals grieve the loss of others. Of the stories I received, a few reflected on what a dog knew about their own fate, but there was more uncertainty in what they were feeling about what was happening to them personally. 

The future of comparative thanatology: What dogs might know about death and dying and how

While my interest in the question of what dogs (and other animals) know about death and dying always is piqued when I received queries related to this question, I still can't answer the questions with certainty. I fully realize that looking for certainty is always risky business when studying various aspects of animal behavior because of rampant individual differences, and trying to figure out what an individual knows about death and dying—what's going on in their heads and hearts—is fraught with more difficulty and uncertainty because we can't ask them directly what they're feeling and whether or not they knew something was happening and that's why they did what they did. 

This is not to say that dogs and other animals don't know much if anything about their own and other's death and dying, but rather to stress that it's essential to remain open to the possibility that they do sense their own and/or others passing.

Citizen science and the views of the two veterinarians above need to be taken seriously and I hope to see more systematic studies of death and dying in the future. An excellent beginning is a collection of essays by researchers devoted specifically to an emerging field called comparative thanatology—the study of death and dying in nonhuman animals. Surely, what we know or think we know can be used to benefit the dogs themselves and help them cope with what's happening, and it's better to err on the side of more, rather than less, concern and care.

Stay tuned for further discussions about this fascinating field of study. Many bright-minded researchers are keenly interested in responses to death and dying in a wide variety of animals, and there's no shortage of stories from citizen scientists that focus on these topics. How the senses figure into signaling impending death may tell us more about what's happening when an animal is dying. 

Nothing is lost, and much will be gained by considering different explanations as data and stories pour in. And as we learn more about what other animals are thinking and feeling about death-related issues, we'll likely learn more about ourselves

Facebook image: Arman Novic/Shutterstock

References

Anderson, James. Responses to death and dying: primates and other mammals. Primates, 2020. (This essay contains numerous valuable references.)

Bekoff, Marc. Dogs, Dying, and Death—and How to Help Them Cope. (Pondering death-related questions has generated useful discussions.)

_____. What Do Animals Know and Feel About Death and Dying? (There is a long list of references accompanying this essay, many stemming from a special issue of a professional journal devoted to this topic.)

_____ How Dogs See the World: Some Facts About the Canine Cosmos

_____. Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do. University of Chicago Press, 2018. 

_____ and Jessica Pierce. Unleashing Your Dog: A Field Guide to Giving Your Canine Companion the Best Life Possible. New World Library, 2019. 

Herzog, Hal. Encounters with Dead Pets: A Study of the Evolution of Grief