Can Grief Kill Your Dog?

Introduction

The notion that dogs can grieve themselves to death is a concerning one for any dog owner. The idea suggests that dogs can become so overwhelmed by grief and sadness that they eventually pass away. But is this actually possible? In this article, we’ll explore whether dogs can really succumb to the depths of grief following a loss or traumatic event. We’ll look at how dogs express grief, risk factors for severe grief reactions, and ways to support a grieving dog. While the notion of dying from a “broken heart” is more romanticized myth than reality, it’s clear dogs deeply feel the loss of a loved one. Understanding their grief responses allows us to provide better care during difficult transitions.

What is Grief?

Grief is a natural emotional response to loss that occurs in dogs, just as it does in humans. When a dog loses a companion, whether animal or human, they can experience all the stages of grief humans go through. These include denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance (Source: https://www.vet.cornell.edu/stages-grieving).

Like humans, each dog experiences grief in their own way. Some signs a dog is grieving include: lethargy, loss of appetite, crying/whining, searching behavior, anxiety, sleep disturbances, loss of interest in toys and interactions, and even illness. The depth of grief a dog experiences often correlates with the strength of the bond with the deceased.

The grieving process is important for helping dogs come to terms with loss. By understanding the grief stages, owners can provide extra patience and comfort to help their dog through this difficult transitional period. With time and support, most dogs will accept the loss and return to their normal happy selves.

How Dogs Express Grief

Dogs express grief in many ways that may look similar to how humans mourn. Some common signs of grief in dogs include:

  • Withdrawal – grieving dogs may retreat and hide from interactions. They may seem depressed or inactive.
  • Loss of appetite – dogs experiencing grief often lose interest in food or treats.
  • Vocalizations – grieving dogs may whimper, howl, or bark more than usual.
  • a dog crying by a door

  • Searching behaviors – dogs missing a companion may patrol the house looking for them or wait by the door.

According to the ASPCA, these behaviors reflect the anxiety dogs feel after losing a close companion, whether animal or human. The strength of the bond determines the intensity of grief. Dogs form deep attachments and the absence of a loved one triggers stress.

While each dog grieves differently, common signs include lethargy, disinterest in play, anti-social behavior, loss of housetraining, and physical ailments from depression. Support from owners helps dogs adapt to loss.

Can Grief Be Fatal?

While grief itself does not directly cause death in dogs, the stress and depression associated with grief can lead to detrimental physical effects. According to veterinarians, extreme grief can potentially “unmask” underlying medical conditions that a dog may have (1).

The sadness and loss of appetite often seen in grieving dogs can weaken their immune system over time. This makes them more susceptible to illnesses and exacerbates pre-existing conditions like heart disease. In some cases, the chronic stress grief causes can lead to fatal heart issues like cardiomyopathy in susceptible dogs (1).

Additionally, grieving dogs may stop eating and drinking normally. This malnutrition and dehydration can endanger a dog’s health. Dogs that drastically reduce their food intake while grieving are at risk for potentially fatal conditions like hepatic lipidosis (fatty liver disease) (2).

So while grief itself is not a direct cause of death in dogs, the associated stress, depression, and loss of appetite can be fatal for some dogs with certain pre-existing medical conditions. Careful monitoring and medical intervention is often required for dogs experiencing extreme grief reactions.

Risk Factors

Certain factors can make some dogs more susceptible to extreme grieving after a loss. According to the American Kennel Club, dogs that form strong social bonds and attachments to other animals are at higher risk for prolonged grieving. Breeds known for strong social natures like Retrievers, Newfoundlands, German Shepherds, and Pit Bull Terriers can become more distressed when these bonds are broken.

a sad old dog

Older dogs that have been with another dog for many years may struggle more when their companion passes away. Puppies and younger dogs can also have difficulty adjusting to life without a littermate. Dogs with existing anxiety or health issues are prone to increased stress that can be compounded by grief and loss.

Knowing your dog’s personality and attachment style can help determine if they are susceptible to grieving themselves to exhaustion or deteriorating health after a significant loss. Extra support and patience is required for high-risk grieving dogs to make sure their needs are met. Consulting a veterinarian or trainer may be warranted if extreme grieving persists beyond initial acute mourning.

Supporting a Grieving Dog

There are several things pet owners can do to help support a grieving dog and speed up their recovery process:

Maintain routines and structure. Sticking to regular feeding times, walk schedules, and familiar activities can provide a sense of normalcy and security during a time of change (https://olddoghaven.org/how-to-help-a-grieving-dog/).

Spend extra quality time together. Increased playtime, longer walks, or cuddle sessions reinforce your bond and reassure your dog they are not alone (https://vcahospitals.com/know-your-pet/do-dogs-mourn).

Invite friends over. If your dog enjoys company, having familiar people around more often can lift their spirits and provide distraction from grief (https://www.bluecross.org.uk/advice/dog/how-to-help-a-grieving-dog).

Consider new toys. Novel playthings may reengage their interest and stimulate mental activity.

Be patient and affectionate. Understanding a dog’s grief takes time. Offer plenty of praise, pets, and reassurance as they process the loss.

a person hugging a grieving dog

When to Seek Help

While it’s normal for dogs to grieve the loss of a companion, there are times when a grieving dog’s behavior warrants a veterinary visit. According to VCA Animal Hospitals, it’s important to consult a vet if your dog stops eating or drinking for more than 24 hours during the grieving process. Dehydration and malnutrition can quickly become life-threatening for dogs, so a lack of appetite or interest in food after a loss requires immediate attention.

You should also contact your vet if your dog displays signs of extreme lethargy or depression that last more than a few days after the loss. While grieving dogs may seem more withdrawn at first, an ongoing lack of interest in walks, play, or social interaction could indicate a deeper mental health issue requiring medication or therapy. Additionally, seek veterinary care if your dog engages in destructive behaviors like excessive chewing or digging due to separation anxiety after a loss. Your vet can provide solutions to ease your dog’s transition in a healthy way.

In summary, consult your vet promptly if your grieving dog stops eating or drinking for over 24 hours, exhibits extreme lethargy or depression beyond a few days, or shows signs of separation anxiety through destructive behaviors. Your vet can evaluate if medical treatment is needed to support your dog through an extreme grieving process.

Preventing Extreme Grief

There are several ways pet owners can help minimize the grief a dog experiences from the loss of a companion or family member:

Gradually easing transitions when someone leaves the home can help. For example, if a family member moves away, having them stop by for regular visits for a while can make it less abrupt. Similarly, introducing a new dog into the household slowly through carefully monitored interactions can prevent shock.

Maintaining daily routines with walking, feeding, playing etc. provides stability and comfort. While it’s natural to want to comfort a grieving dog with treats and extra attention, sticking to their normal schedule prevents drastic changes.

Giving them increased exercise and playtime can help distract and engage them. Interactive toys and games are good for mourning dogs who’ve lost interest in their usual activities.

Bringing in playmates the dog knows and likes can also lift their mood and prevent isolation. Setting up doggy playdates with friends during the grieving period makes loss less lonely.

Using calming supplements or pheromone products may ease anxiety and restlessness from grief. However, make sure to consult a vet before trying supplements.

a dog taking medication

Being patient and keeping perspective is important, as intense grief normally lessens in dogs within a few weeks or months. However, if signs persist beyond that timeframe, seeking professional help is recommended.

Making Tough Decisions

There may come a point when you need to consider humane euthanasia for your pet if their quality of life becomes too diminished. As difficult as this decision is, it is one of the most loving things you can do for a pet that is suffering. There are several indicators to look for when assessing your pet’s quality of life and determining if it’s time to help them pass peacefully.

According to the AVMA, you may want to consider euthanasia “if a pet has become vicious, dangerous, or unmanageable. Some undesirable and abnormal behaviors that may lead to euthanasia include aggression that is unresponsive to behavior modification, loss of appetite leading to emaciation, severely compromised quality of life from an injury or disease process that is not curable, etc.”

Some key things to look for are unmanageable chronic pain, inability to move around or eat normally, lack of joy or interest in life, and other changes that seriously diminish your pet’s quality of life. Your veterinarian can help assess your pet’s condition and determine if euthanasia may be the most humane option. Although extremely difficult, choosing euthanasia can be the final act of love and care you can provide your pet.

Takeaways

Grief is a normal emotion that dogs experience after losing a companion pet or human family member. While most dogs will express grief through temporary behavior changes like reduced appetite or increased vocalizations, some may become severely depressed or anxious. Prolonged and extreme grief can potentially be dangerous for a dog’s health. Key risk factors include a sudden loss, a highly bonded relationship, a solitary dog without support, and an anxious/sensitive personality. If your dog shows signs of not adjusting after an appropriate mourning period, seek vet advice. With patience and care, most dogs can come through grief intact. Try to minimize traumatic losses, spend time comforting them, keep routines normal, and consider introducing a new friend. While grieving dogs need space, don’t let them socially isolate themselves. With time and support, dogs can learn to accept loss and refocus on living.

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