Can A Pet Sense Their Owner’s Death?

Can A Pet Sense Their Owner’s Death?

(By Corinna Underwood)

Losing pets as adults is as hard as losing them when we’re kids.

No one can really explain where they’ve gone, and the sadness feels unconsolable. Why do our faithful, happy companions have to have so much shorter a life than ours? It’s hard to accept, no matter what age we are.

Not surprisingly, pets are devastated by the loss of an owner in a similar way. Even when arrangements for the pet have been made, an owner’s death can cause confusion and depression in pets, particularly dogs. They may not understand their owner has passed away, but they understand their caregiver has left them (perhaps making it even sadder to think of, from that perspective).

The Story of a Dog Name Masha

In 2014, a heartwarming story about a Russian dog began circulating in European newspapers. Masha had lived for years with her Siberian owner when he fell ill and was taken into the Novosibirsk District Hospital. During that time, Masha was her owner’s only visitor.

When her owner passed away, Masha was unable to make sense of his disappearance. The little dog continued to show up at the hospital, looking for her owner, every day for over a year. 

Even when the nurses tried to find her a new home, Masha would break free and return to the hospital.

Can a Dog Sense Their Owner Is Dying?

While they can’t necessarily understand the difference between their owner’s choice to leave, and death, it may be possible that dogs can sense an illness in their owner. 

Dogs have an incredible sense of smell. 

Possessing as many as 300 million smell receptors, compared to a mere six million in humans, dogs can even analyze smell, using what’s called their vomeronasal organ. Because of their incredible sense of smell, recently dogs have been trained to detect many diseases, including skin cancer, diabetes, and even COVID-19. So it may be possible that a dog senses when their owner is sick. 

However, even if this is the case, it will not help the pet cope with the loss of a companion.

Signs That a Pet is Grieving

After the loss of an owner, dogs may demonstrate a variety of signs of grief, including but not limited to:

  • Becoming listless and not wanting to play
  • Showing signs of depression such as whining
  • Not wanting to eat
  • Scratching or chewing and their fur
  • Moving around more slowly
  • Sleeping more than usual

While skeptics claim that pets do not grieve, that they are simply upset by a sudden change in their routine, most animal behaviorists believe there is more to it. They liken the dog’s changes in behavior to similar ones that grieving humans display when they have lost someone close. Unfortunately, unlike humans, we can’t explain the process to dogs as sufficiently as we can explain it to ourselves.

How to Help a Grieving Dog

The best way you can help a dog that is mourning the loss of their human companion is to stick to their usual routine as much as possible. 

It might seem like a benign thing, but this will help to reduce their stress as much as possible. By maintaining the same feeding and exercise routines, you can limit the amount of change that they have to deal with.

If you happen to have a dog whose exact routine you’re not familiar with, exercise, play, and stimulation are great ways to distract a pet from grieving. 

Here are some other ways you can help:

  • Take them for a long walk or visit your local dog park.
  • Make sure they have stimulating toys, not just a stick for fetch.
  • Spend time playing games like hide and seek (make it super easy, of course).
  • Enroll them in an obstacle course training class.
  • Spending time with them for bonding and rub-downs can help to calm their anxiety.

If you are caring for a dog who has recently lost her human companion and you need advice on helping a pet deal with grief, contact Dr. Jeff Werber. As former president of the Association of Veterinary Communicators, and renowned veterinarian, Dr. Jeff is experienced in all aspects of animal medicine, and behavioral care. He is happy to advise you on how to help a pet who is mourning the loss of her owner.

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