If you are in tune with your dog’s body language or vocalizations, you know that he is almost always trying to say something. Dogs don’t laugh, but a wagging tail and an eager face seem easy to interpret as joy. Pain and sorrow are a different matter and more difficult to read. So, do dogs cry tears? Are a dog’s whimpers, whines and howls the same as human weeping? Can dogs cry or even sympathize with us when we’re sad? Let’s start with the basics.
Before we answer, “Do dogs cry tears?” let’s talk about dog tear stains. Those rust-colored trails leading away from the eyes of a light- or white-coated dog — are more than enough proof that dogs do have tear ducts. Tear staining, also known as epiphora, is basically excessive tear production. It happens to darker-coated dogs as well, though it’s harder to see. Why do dogs have tears, if not for crying?
So, the answer to, “Do dogs cry tears?” is that there are three kinds of tears, and dogs make use of two: basal and reflexive. Basal tears keep a dog’s eyes wet and functioning. They are produced constantly, if slowly. Reflexive tears protect the eyes and work to flush out debris like dirt, pollen and other irritants.
When we question, “Do dogs cry tears?” what we’re really asking is if they respond to stimuli — physical or emotional — in the same way we do. This third variety is called “emotional tears.” Our tear ducts make and issue them faster and in greater volume than either basal or reflexive tears. Emotional tears are the only ones that canine tear ducts don’t produce.
A dog’s tears are necessary and functional. For the most part, dog vocalizations serve practical purposes and don’t accompany tears. Dogs bark or howl when they sense a threat. They whine when they want food, exercise or attention.
What about separation anxiety, which involves a wide range of expressions? We’ve all heard dogs whimper and whine with all the subtlety of an alarm clock the moment their owners are out of sight. That’s something like crying. Others let us know how they feel by chewing up our favorite pair of shoes or pooping on the carpet.
How do we interpret the yips and yelps that accompany sudden injury? People in pain can weep for extended periods of time. Dogs, on the other hand, don’t tend to sound out physical pain beyond the moment it happens. The lack of vocal signs is one reason why changes in behavior, energy levels and feeding habits are more reliable ways to tell when a dog is hurt or sick.
If the answer to, “Do dogs cry tears?” is that dogs don’t cry tears like humans might, can dogs sympathize with us when we cry? Dogs may not cry in the same way or for the same reasons that we do, but there’s no doubt they are in tune with our emotional states.
Several years ago, I messed up my knee. I managed to get myself home that night and had an extraordinary experience. The moment I opened my car door, my dog, Tina, let out a long, strange noise that took me by complete surprise.
I had no doubt that she was responding to my pain. In our nine years together, I never heard her make any sound like it before or again. Dogs may not express grief, sorrow, longing, loss, rage or joy through their tear ducts, but that doesn’t mean they don’t feel as keenly.
Thumbnail: Photography ©retales botijero | Getty Images.
Melvin Peña is a writer, editor, social media manager and SEO specialist who spends most of his time in Durham, North Carolina. His interests include his dog, Baby (of course!), art, hiking, urban farming and karaoke.
Editor’s note: This article first appeared in Dogster magazine. Have you seen the new Dogster print magazine in stores? Or in the waiting room of your vet’s office? Subscribe now to get Dogster magazine delivered straight to you!