Do Dogs Grieve When They Lose A Companion?

A few months ago one of our older Chihuahuas passed away. She was very bonded to our other Chihuahua named Carl. They had spent their lives together from puppyhood. I always fed them together and Carl would never eat until Leeloo ate. In fact she would eat his food, picking out the good bits while he watched. Then he would eat what was left of his food and she would eat her food. They would switch back and forth until their bowls were cleaned.

When she passed Carl would not eat from his bowl, he would not even go near it.

I had to hand feed him. At first he barely ate anything; he was waiting for his buddy. Eventually he ate but only if I stayed with him. It was so sad. I believe he truly missed Leeloo.

Best Friends - Leelo and Carl

As a shelter volunteer we see animals’ grief on a daily basis. So many are surrendered because their owner has died and the family cannot or is not willing to take care of the dog. Often we get bonded pairs of older dogs that are deeply depressed.

We had a pair of terriers surrendered because of the loss of their owner, the oldest dog was 15 and died a few days after entering the shelter. The remaining dog howled mournfully unless someone sat with him to comfort him. It was heartbreaking.

However, there was a happy ending for this dog as he was adopted and is doing very well.

Our rescue named Terra came from a similar situation and was surrendered at age 10. She was terribly depressed in the shelter, but in our home she is now happy and thriving at age 15! It takes some love and patience but they do get better with time.


Old Shepherds Chief Mourner by Landseer Edwin (1837)

“The fact that this dog refuses to leave this man’s side, even after his death, highlights the close relationship that the dog and the man have had and it also demonstrates the depth of the grief that the dog is feeling.” [source]

A study by by Jessica Walker of the New Zealand Companion Animal Counsel was published in the journal Animals. It attempts to catalog the behaviors of dogs and cats when they suffer the loss of an animal housemate. Data was collected pertaining to 159 dogs and 152 cats. The data consisted of questionnaire responses from pet owners in New Zealand and Australia who owned multiple pets at the same time and had lost one within the past five years. The pet owners who had all experienced a loss within the past five years were asked to recall how the surviving pet responded to the disappearance of their companion.

Some of the common behaviors observed included:

  • Dogs continually checked the places where their lost housemate normally napped or rested. This behavior was found in 60 percent of the dogs, regardless of whether the lost companion was a dog or a cat. (The figure was 63% for cats.)
  • Dogs increased whining and whimpering by about 27%. (43% for cats)
  • Dogs exhibited a 35% reduction in the amount of food eaten and the speed in which it was consumed. (31% in cats)
  • Dogs were more likely to increase the amount of time that they spent sleeping by 34%. (20% for cats).

According to the researchers, these are all behaviors one might observe in a young human child experiencing grief and stress because of the loss of a human family member. [source]


Navy SEAL Jon Tumilson's Labrador retriever Hawkeye

Navy SEAL Jon Tumilson’s Labrador retriever Hawkeye was loyal to the end, as he refused to leave his master’s side during an emotional funeral. Source: CBX photo


According to much of my research, here are some common guidelines to alleviate your dog’s grief: [source]

  1. Consider letting your dog view the body. Though there is little scientific evidence that this helps, many believe this indeed does help your pet understand the reality of the loss.
  2. Keep a regular routine to help him adjust. Keeping to your normal daily activities helps decrease the dog’s feeling of stress.
  3. Be careful not to enable your dog. Just like “babying” or “coddling” a child who will not help their self, be wary of the practice with pets. By hand feeding a dog that won’t eat, or letting a pet now sleep in your bed when it never has before, you create new routines and habbits that will be hard to break later on.
  4. Give him time to find his place. Whether the deceased dog was a leader of the pack or a subordinate, the disruption in hierarchy may prove unsettling at first.
  5. Fill his time with interactive play. Games, walks, and teaching new tricks can help fill the playtime stimulation void.
  6. Carefully consider getting a new dog. Introducing a strange new dog into the survivor’s territory too soon can cause stress. But it is also important to consider your own personal feelings about accepting the loss of a dear loved one.
  7. Test out a friend’s dog before adding a new dog to your family. See how your dog reacts and whether it helps or not. If he takes to the other dog, he may be ready. If he doesn’t, it’s best to wait.


So it is important to recognize that pets certainly do experience grief as they come to grips with the reality of the loss and the voids that are created.  Though there is no simple way to fill those physical and emotional empty spaces, coming to terms with your own grief is often the first step in being able to adequately deal with your pet’s feelings as well.  And when you decide to bring a new pet into your loving home (and I hope you do if you experience a loss) please consider visiting your local animal rescue or adoption center. Many places will allow you to also bring along a current pet so you can gauge their reaction to a potential new family member.




Kids and Dogs: A Parent’s Guide to Canine Body Language & Safety
Is Your Dog Happy?