When a Dog Loses a Loved One -- An Interview with Dr. Michael W. Fox
I recently read a letter in veterinarian Michael W. Fox's newspaper column, Animal Doctor, from a woman whose dog was so bereft after her husband died that the dog pretty much stopped eating, and was clearly depressed for a long time. It wasn't until she brought him to the grave of her husband that the dog started living life again. The man had died in the hospital, and their dog had never known exactly why he wasn't coming home. The visit seemed to help the dog understand, and move on.
At the time I was putting together my story about dogs at cemeteries, and I had to focus on to more "brick and mortar" notions of pets running about graveyards. But the idea of an animal grieving the death of a loved one -- human or other animal -- stayed with me. So I contacted Dr. Fox, and he kindly consented to let me interview him on the topic. His insights and observations are fascinating, and will surely prove very helpful to some Dogsters as time marches on.
MG: So many people seem to forget about a dog when a loved one has died or is dying. But aren't dogs sometimes deeply affected by the loss of a special person/owner? Is it safe to call it grief?
MWF: Some dogs grieve, but others, just like many people, show no evident grief when a loved one dies. While the people know of the death, the dog may not unless he/she sees the body; is present in the room where the person is dying; picks up on the emotions of the people seeing to the dying person either in-home or at the hospital. Some dogs actually know when the loved one has died at the hospital before those at home receive the phone call, because of evident sudden changes in behavior such as suddenly howling and becoming agitated, or giving up the waiting by-the-door or driveway vigil. Such "remote sensing" is behavioral evidence of the existence of what I call the "empathosphere," which I document in my books The Boundless Circle and Dog Body, Dog Mind.
MG: How do they manifest this sense of loss?
MWF: Grief or mourning behavior in dogs has many similarities to separation-anxiety and associated depression and disinterest in food and life as seen in dogs who are boarded, and whose lives may be at risk without empathic attention and recognition of their condition.
Some dogs may search from room to room for the deceased, or become hyper-vigilant especially around the time when the deceased used to come home from work. The deceased may have been a source of security for the dog (including another companion dog whose death is being mourned), so the dog becomes more anxious and withdrawn, or may follow a family member from room to room and fear being left alone.
The period of mourning can last for weeks: Signs include lethargy, disinterest in play, toys, walks; bouts of whining, whimpering or howling even during sleep; loss of weight due to anorexia associated with depression. If not given full attention and encouragement to re-engage in normal activities, physical deterioration may set in and the dog could die from a broken heart.
MG: Is there a way to handle the dying or death of a dog's beloved human so the dog can start healing?
MWF: Many people are so self-involved with their own grief and with the business of funeral arrangements, estate details etc that they do not engage with other family members, including dogs, who are not coping well with the death of the loved one. This is especially true when the loved one was another animal and people do not comprehend how much others may suffer from such loss, be it a child or spouse or surviving dog in the family.
It can help significantly for the dog(s) to see the dead body. This is also true for many cats. Allowing them this opportunity to view the body helps them come to terms with the reality of anothers demise. How and what they process cognitively in terms of death we can only guess. But we do know that many animals showing distress before they view the body become more settled afterwards.
I do not like the over-used term closure, like shutting a lid on emotions that will re-surface at any time unexpectedly in the future. Our dog Batman, for example, who mourned the death of his buddy-dog Xylo for close to a month, refused to go on a walk with me along one of Xylos favorite haunts when we returned for the first time some six months after her death.
MG: Thats really something. Is there anything else youd like to add before we wrap it up?
MWF: It is also interesting how many dogs and cats react when a family member is confined to bed and how protective and attentive they can become: this is yet more evidence of their emotional intelligence and ability to empathize.
Not only do dogs and cats grieve the loss of a loved one, be it a companion animal or a human being, but also horses, geese, chimpanzees in the wild and bears in captivity, to mention but a few of the species who share this emotion with us. A wider recognition of the depths of emotion our fellow animals share with us should move us to respect their basic rights and entitlement to humane treatment. Animals were not created for mans use. They are only ours in sacred trust.
Dr. Fox is a graduate of the Royal Veterinary College, London, and holds doctoral degrees in medicine and ethology/animal behavior from the University of London, England. He is author of more than 40 books, writes the nationally syndicated newspaper column, Animal Doctor, is a member of the British Veterinary Association, American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association and Honor Roll Member of the American Veterinary Medical Association. You can learn more about him at his website, Two Bit Dog.