Dogs, Dying, and Death—and How to Help Them Cope
Pondering death-related questions has generated useful discussions.
Posted July 31, 2020 | Reviewed by Kaja Perina
Two essays—Do Dogs Know They're Dying? (Was Sadie really trying to tell her human companion that Oscar was dying?) and What Do Animals Know and Feel About Death and Dying?—have generated a good number of very useful discussions about what nonhuman animals (animals) know about their own death and that of other individuals and how we can help them along as they grieve and mourn.1 As a result of these exchanges and focusing on dogs and what they know about their own death, I pooled fifty people. Their responses were as follows: 27 (54%) adamantly said "Yes, a dog knows they're dying", 15 (30%) said "No, they don't", and 8 (16%) said something like, "We don't and can't know." Of 13 emails I received about the same question, 9 people (70%) said "Yes," 3 (23%) said "No" and 1, Margo, said, "Who knows."
When I asked if dogs knew that other individuals were dying, there was more uncertainty. When someone answered, "Yes", they generally mentioned companion animals, especially dogs, cats, and various parrots, other mammals such as nonhuman primates, elephants, cetaceans, and birds such as crows, magpies, and parrots—the "smart ones"—as Monika put it. Finally, when I asked if animals know that other individuals were already dead, the array of answers was similar to the ones above. Franklin offered that nonhuman parents surely would know that their children were dying or were dead, and that made me think about an orca mother, Tahlequah, also called J-35, who carried her dead infant on her head for 17 days and 1000 miles.
These responses and many other discussions led me to think more about death-related cognitive and emotional capacities among different animals. Those who answered "Yes" all were adamant and offered compelling stories, while the nay-sayers also were pretty firm because they didn't think that nonhumans had the cognitive capacities to know much about death and dying. The answers that made me really think were, "We don't and can't know" and "Who knows." What they were saying is that we can never know what they know and feel because they really can't tell us what they know and what they're feeling.
Here are some answers to some general questions that constantly come my way about death-related events for dogs and other animals.
Do dogs grieve when another dog in their home dies?
Humans are not the only animals who grieve and mourn the loss of other individuals. Surely, companion animals do as well. There are numerous observations among wild animals such as elephants, wolves, and coyotes, great apes and other nonhuman primates, and cetaceans, that show they grieve the loss of close friends and family members. Some birds also are members of the "grief club", for example, crows and magpies. Experts agree we're not the only animals in the grief and mourning arena.
There are many different ways you can learn if your pet is grieving. Look for behavioral changes. In dogs, you'll often see they become less playful. However, while a decrease in play may be an indicator that something's wrong, it's not always a reliable cross-species indicator of how they're feeling. You've got to know your dog's personality and see if a lack of play means they're not feeling good about something that's happened.
Dogs also may mope around when they're feeling sad. You can read their body language—their tail position, their ear position—and their eyes. They may stop eating and they show a lack of interest in things that used to interest them, such as seeing friends or going for a walk or to a dog park. They simply exhibit a feeling of general malaise. Behavioral observations are really critical. When they're correlated with the loss of a close friend, sibling, or mate, you can use those as markers that something's wrong—another individual is no longer here. There may be a change in their daily pattern or there might be the lack of a playmate or the lack of certain odors or simply the lack of company.
Do dogs know when they're terminally ill or dying?
The question of what dogs and other animals know when they're sick or dying is very much up in the air. I have numerous stories from people, especially about dogs, sometimes with cats and other companion animals, who say they know their dog who was dying knew that s/he was dying. I'm not sure how we could know that, but I want to be very careful to say that just because I don't know something, and I'm not sure anybody really knows, that doesn't mean animals don't know when they're dying.
The question of whether they know that another individual is dying also is of interest to many people. Once again, we just don't know. There's a meme-like myth that wild animals go off and die on their own, either to relieve the group of having to go through the pain of watching them die or for some other reason. The fact is, there's not much evidence for this idea, but it's an eye catcher.
One thing that's really important is that when a wild animal disappears, you can't conclude they've died. For example, during an eight and a half year project on wild coyotes living in the Grand Teton National Park, my students and I saw an adult female disappear. She was a mother and a wife of her mate. She disappeared and we have no idea what happened to her and nobody reported finding a corpse. It's possible she passed away. It's also possible she left the study area. Nonetheless, the behavior of her family pack changed. They began going off on forays, clearly looking for her. They stopped playing. They stopped hunting. The demeanor of the entire group changed. I feel comfortable saying they were pondering something like, "Where's Mom? Mom's missing". But once again, I'm not sure they were thinking and feeling, "Mom isn't here anymore because she died". However, this doesn't mean they didn't.
How do I comfort my dog when they're dying?
It depends on what they're dying from. If they're really in pain, then it's okay to give them a painkiller if they need it. If it's clear they're suffering from something that's not necessarily physically painful, then cut them some slack and give them latitude. They need you and they'll let you know what they need. There are also differences in the personalities of individual animals—some may want more of you and some might want less of you. So give them what they need. You can talk softly to them. You can sit down and see if they come to you if they're able to. It's all about paying careful attention to acknowledge who they are, as Having a companion animal is a two-way street. We control their lives and we are their lifelines. So give them what they need. You can just talk softly to them. You can sit down and see if they come to you if they are able. Sit down next to them and see what they do. It's all about paying enough attention to who they are—the unique individual they are—and to listen to what they're telling you.
How do I comfort my dog when my other pet dies?
The best way to comfort the surviving animal is to give them a lot of attention. Approach them slowly and touch them softly or sit next to them and talk softly to them. If you know them well as the individual they are, use this information. If the survivor chooses to withdraw a bit, let them withdraw. If they decide, "I really need a break, I just need to be alone for a while," that's okay. They'll come to you when they need something. Sometimes it's hard for the human to not have the company of the surviving individual and they put demands on the surviving dog. I had a situation where one of my dogs who survived the death of another dog just wanted to be alone. So I would just let him go hide under the bed, go behind the bed, or go into their outdoor kennel and rest.
I had an outdoor run when I lived in the mountains, and I would go out and softly ask, "Hey, how are you?" I'd tell them I'm sorry Sasha, but you know I'm here for you." On occasion they'd come over to me, lie down, and put their head on my lap. They also occasionally ignored me. That was fine with me, because they knew I was there for them when they needed me. I always tell people don't take it personally because it's not about you, it's about them.
Some thoughts for future research
Grieving and mourning clearly show that nonhuman animals are socially aware of what's happening in their worlds and that they feel deep emotions when family and friends die. Clearly, we're not the only animals who possess the cognitive and emotional capacities for suffering the loss of others.
Stay tuned for more discussion of what dogs and other animals know about dying and death. When we get a better understanding of what's happening in their heads and hearts, we can use this information to help them along to do the best they can in troubled times. In addition to observational and ethological studies, clever neuroimaging studies conducted in situations in which we assume dogs are grieving or mourning, such as some very clever research conducted to learn about jealousy, might also shed light on what's happening in their brains.
I look forward to further discussions and relevant research into death-related questions for a wide variety of nonhumans. Keeping the door open will surely lead to interesting studies, stimulating debates, and filling in the holes in interpretations and explanations of what other animals actually know and feel when they're dying or when or others are dying or have passed on.
1) Comparative studies on grieving and mourning in a variety of nonhumans can be seen here.
Bekoff, Marc. Make No Mistake, Orca Mom J-35 and Pod Mates Are Grieving.
_____. Jealousy in Dogs: Brain Imaging Shows They're Similar to Us.
Berns, Gregory. What It's Like to Be a Dog: And Other Adventures in Animal Neuroscience. New York: Basic Books, 2017.
Grantham-Philips, Wyatte. This orca carried her dead calf for 17 days and 1,000 miles. Now, she's pregnant again. USA Today, July 28, 2020.