Do dogs acknowledge death?
5 Animals That Grieve and Understand Death
Humans aren’t the only species that mourn their loved one’s passing. In fact, there are several animals that grieve and understand death.
Even Darwin thought animals could have all sorts of emotions, like misery and happiness. And these observations have been around for millenniums. For example, Pliny the Elder recorded elephants mourning their dead in 23-79 AD.
However, for centuries, scientists and researchers were too scared to describe this behavior as grieving because they didn’t want to anthropomorphize these species, meaning to attribute human characteristics, intentions, or emotions to animals.
Typical signs of an animal in mourning usually include failing to sleep and eat, becoming socially withdrawn, and changing their traveling routine. While many animals show signs of mourning, here are 5 animals that grieve and understand death.
Elephants Grieve and Understand Death
Elephants are the most well-known animal species that mourn their dead. They often visit the carcass of a fallen loved one and keep returning even when the body has decomposed, and all that is left are sun-bleached bones.
Researchers believe this is their way of grieving as they do not show any interest in the carcasses of other large animals like rhinos or buffalo.
In addition, to visiting the deceased elephant, they investigate the remains with their trunks and an acute sense of smell. Their social dynamic also changes around the carcass; for example, interactions with other elephants in the vicinity appear agitated or subdued.
Animals that live in the present don’t understand death; for them, it is just absence. However, intelligent animals with complex social structures and long-term memory, like elephants, realize that death is permanent and thus mourn their loss.
Giraffes Grieve and Understand Death
While they don’t mourn as passionately as elephants, giraffes do understand death and have shown interest in the bodies of their dead companions. For example, in Kenya, one researcher witnessed a mother giraffe staying with her dead calf for several days before finally giving up hope and moving on.
But, while she was mourning, other females joined her, and they all grieved by wrapping their necks around each other, very similar to a hug. They share the need for comfort and touch, just like humans.
In another instance, there have been many sightings of mourning giraffes in the Kruger National Park, South Africa. Tearful tourists report the same behavior; a group of giraffes stands approximately 33 feet from a dead giraffe, staring at the carcass, while the last few vultures eat their fill.
They do nothing to chase away these scavengers; they just stare at it, almost like they are paying their respect. The group will return every day for the next few days, growing less and less interested in the carcass as time goes on. Eventually, after about 4 days, they will move on.
Orcas Grieve and Understand Death
Orcas are another species that mourn their dead. There have been many sightings of killer whale mothers carrying their calves around for a few days after their death.
But, the most heart-breaking observation was when an orca called Tahlequah kept her decomposing calf afloat for 17 days! She just couldn’t seem to part with her baby. Sometimes her calf would sink, and she would dive to retrieve the body and bring it up to the surface.
Finally, after 400 hours, she could no longer keep her calve afloat and let her body sink to the bottom of the Salish Sea.
So, although humans can communicate with animals, there is no doubt that this killer whale was exhibiting intense grief. As with elephants, orcas have complex social lives and advanced brains; they scream intelligence.
Other Cetaceans that Grieve
All cetaceans are highly intelligent and have shown signs of grief and understanding of death. For example, in March 2013, the crew and passengers of a dolphin and whale-watching excursion saw a bottlenose dolphin carrying her dead calf around. They believed that the calf had been dead for several days because of its state of decomposition.
It’s hard for scientists to determine whether animals grieve because they cannot ask them what they are feeling. Although all the morbid signs point to mourning, there can always be another explanation for their strange behavior.
However, chimpanzees have shown highly indisputable signs that they grieve and understand death. For example, researchers in Zambia have observed wild-born chimpanzees at the Chimfushi Wildlife Orphanage Trust, which were rescued from illegal trade.
They live in massive enclosures in large social groups, and when a 9-year-old male suddenly passed away, the group surrounded his body, appearing to mourn his death.
In another tragic event, a 16-month-old infant died, and its mother carried his lifeless body around for a few days. In addition, she laid its tiny body down in a clearing and continued to visit, gently touching the infant on the face and neck in a show of affection.
Eventually, she carried her deceased baby over to a group of chimpanzees and watched as they investigated the body. However, the following day, researchers could not find the body, and the mother was seen in the presence of the group, who appeared to be comforting her.
In another scenario, famed primate ambassador Jane Goodall observed a mother named Flo pass away before her son, Flint.
Flint was still dependent on his mother, and after her death, he would return to the spot where she died and often started at the nest they shared. In addition, he stopped eating and socializing with the group, which are signs of clinical depression. Sadly, Flint died shortly after his mother due to a compromised immune system and starvation.
Other Primates that Grieve
Pet primates also mourn for their owners, like the langur monkey, who could not let go of its owner after he passed away. This monkey sat by its owner’s open coffin and would not take its hands off the deceased man.
Onlookers saw the monkey caressing the man, not accepting that he won’t wake up. They even claim that the monkey bent down to kiss the man’s face, and in a desperate attempt, the langur shook him, trying to get him to wake up.
Once the ceremony was over, people tried to pull the monkey off the coffin, but he put up a fight; he wasn’t ready to leave his beloved owner.
Dogs are another animal that grieves over members of their species and human companions. One example of mourning in dogs is withdrawal from social situations. In addition, they could stop eating or drinking, or they could search for their deceased companion.
However, many scientists believe that dogs don’t necessarily understand death; they only realize that their companion is missing. But, there are many dog lovers, researchers, and scientists that do believe that dogs grieve, and these are some signs they have observed:
- Lack of or non-existent appetite
- Withdrawal from other pets and people
- Unusual behavior like aggressiveness or destructiveness
- Subdued or lethargic behavior
- Sleeping more than usual
- Defecating or urinating inside the home
- Vocalizing their anguish or calling out for the deceased pet/human
- Searching for the dead pet/human in places they often frequented
- Becoming incredibly needy and following its owner everywhere
So, don’t be too harsh if your dog shows any of these signs after a family member or pet has passed away. This is normal behavior for a dog in mourning. Instead, reassure your canine companion with lots of praise and love, and if they are behaving destructively, gently discourage and redirect them.
Dogs Grieve Depends on the Relationship
When it comes to mourning, dogs are similar to humans because not all canines will react the same way to grief. People have witnessed dogs grieving for their own species, humans, and other pets. Their behavior will depend on who they are grieving for.
However, some dogs don’t mourn, but that does not mean they are not affected by death, much like humans who process death differently.
Generally, if two dogs share a close bond, they will exhibit behaviors that point to depression after one of them pass.
Depression is the most common sign your dog is mourning, and it can cause a decrease in appetite, problems sleeping, loss of energy, increased anxiety, regular panting, pacing, and destructive behavior.
After losing a close friend, dogs may also lose their spark and seem less attentive, active, and perky. However, dogs may not exhibit any signs of grief if they aren’t close. Surprisingly, dogs might even seem happier after one of them dies because they receive more attention.
But there’s no need for concern if your pup lacks compassion; there is nothing malicious about this behavior; they all process this sad event differently.
Dogs Pick Up on People’s Grief
When owners lose a beloved family member, their dog will pick up on their grief and start to display behavioral changes, much like the owner during this great period of loss.
Dogs can read our:
- Facial expressions
And they feed off of our grief and sadness. For example, several studies have proven stressed owners have stressed dogs. The study concludes that dogs have the same chemical present in humans under severe stress.
So, if your dog exhibits any signs of grief, you must offer reassurance and love. You can try and cheer your pup up with a hug, an extra walk, or let them sleep by your side.
How Long Does Grief Last in Dogs?
The duration of grief depends on the dog and how they process the loss. It also depends on the relationship with the deceased. However, on average, dogs can mourn for 2 to 6 months.
Other factors that determine the length of a dog’s grieving period include:
- The age of the dog
- The mourning process of the dog’s owners
How You Can Help Your Dog Through their Grief
It’s essential to help your canine companion with their grief. Try to distract them with plenty of exercise and monitor how they eat to ensure they are getting enough food and not starving themselves.
And while you can never replace a loved one, the best way to cheer your pup up would be to get another dog, especially if you work a lot and your dog is alone most of the time. But if this plan is out of the question, arrange puppy play dates, or take your furry friend to a dog park.
Lastly, just be there for your dog, and give them more attention; that way, you are both helping each other overcome the loss of a loved one.
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What To Say To Someone Grieving The Loss Of A Pet (And Things You Should Never Say)
For most people, it’s not just a dog, cat, or other domesticated animal. They just lost a part of the family.
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It’s not easy to know what to say when a friend or family member loses a furry (or smooth) friend. Maybe you’ve experienced this and can empathize. But what if you’re not really an animal person and have no idea how to react?
Though you might not be able to understand or sympathize with the grief associated with this type of loss, there are certain things you can say to offer support while not inadvertently offending the grieving. Here are some tips to help everyone be a compassionate friend.
The safe initial reaction to the news
Start by offering one of the simple phrases that we suggest saying to all who are grieving, “I’m sorry for your loss” or “my condolences.”
It’s always hard to say the right thing after a death, but of all the benign things to say, these two are the safest. Even if you never met the pet, this fail-proof phrase is a simple acknowledgement of the pain the friend/colleague/sobbing stranger next to you on a park bench is feeling.
If the grieving person wants to talk about it with you, and you have no idea what to say, just listen.
Remember Thumper’s advice in Bambi: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all.” Even if you can’t relate or think the person is overreacting, it’s important that you keep these feelings to yourself. You’re there to lend support and help.
Also, don’t bring up your own experience of pet loss, or how you would feel if your pet passed, because that can belittle their current pain and make it feel like a grief competition. This is about them, so the best thing you can do is lend a sympathetic ear.
Feel free to ask questions if you have questions to ask
If the grieving person isn’t offering many details, don’t push. If they’re open to speaking, and you’re genuinely interested, then it’s okay to ask some questions or inquire about details. You don’t want to pry, but at the same time it could help the grieving person discuss what they went through and not keep it all bottled up.
Example: If you knew the animal was sick, perhaps you want to ask about the illness. To lighten the mood, you can ask about the funniest or naughtiest thing the pet ever did to help recall happy memories.
Remind the owner that they gave the pet a great life
Whether it was buying the best treats, most adorable toys, or posting the coolest photos online, let the owner know that they went above and beyond to make sure their pet was always happy.
Domesticated pets are completely dependent on us for their survival, which can create an added level of guilt when a pet dies. Was there something more that could have been done? Should they have sprung for that long shot surgery which cost $7,000? If, for whatever reason, the person had to put their pet to sleep, they could doubt their decision. So keep reminding the owner how fortunate their pet was to have such an amazing pet parent.
Use the pet’s name
Never refer to the pet as “the dog” or “the cat.”
Even if you can’t wrap your head around a person being that upset over the loss of a pet, you should still be courteous. If someone or something was given a name, you should use it.
If you have a memory or favorite photo of the pet, share it
There’s nothing sweeter than a person posting a cute photo of the pet on Facebook or Instagram, or a cute video on TikTok, with a nice message attached.
If the grieving person posts a heartfelt message about the loss, leave a respectful comment showing your understanding and support. Not only will this remind them of the good times but they can also take solace in the fact that their pet had a positive impact on others.
Make a donation in the pet’s name to an animal-related organization
This might be above and beyond for most people, but it commemorates the late pet and is an incredibly kind gesture for other needy animals. Even if you donate old towels and sheets to a local shelter, every bit helps.
Whatever You Do, Don’t Say These Things
Most of these after-a-death platitudes are said with the best of intentions, but they can have terrible results. So take heed before you make a sad situation even worse.
“[Pet’s name] is in a better place.”
How do you know? Perhaps the owner thinks the better place is cuddled next to them on the couch under a comfy blanket. But you’re saying that their pet is better off dead. At least that’s how it can easily be interpreted.
“So, when are you getting another one?”
This might seem like a thoughtful gesture, but it’s upsetting because you’re making it seem like all pets are interchangeable. Many people think of their pets as their children. (Don’t believe us? Read this story: The 10 Biggest Inheritances Ever Left to Pets) Imagine how offensive it would be if you were to ask a parent who lost a child “So, when are you trying for another one?”
We’re well aware it’s every parent’s goal and purpose for their children to outlive them, and it’s completely normal to have many pets throughout a lifetime. But it’s still devastating if someone just lost a pet that provided them love, comfort, and perhaps even a service. As actor Mickey Rourke said “sometimes when a man’s alone, that’s all you got is your dog. And they meant the world to me.” So don’t inadvertently make that person feel worse than they already do.
“You didn’t even like that [animal type goes here]”
There’s a possibility that the owner often complained about the pet. Maybe it was their spouse’s pet from before they met. Maybe they stepped in to be a guardian after the original owner got sick or passed away. Regardless of the circumstances, it doesn’t mean they’re not sad about the loss.
This also applies if you didn’t like their pet. Now’s not the time to bring it up. The pet won’t be bothering you anymore, so let it go.
However, if the person says they are relieved the pet is gone, and not because the pet died suddenly in an accident or was suffering from an illness, then we suppose everything is fair game. That person might also be a psychopath, so watch out!
“Get over it. It was just a [animal type goes here].”
Any person who says something like this will be viewed as a heartless monster, regardless of the type of pet. If that pet was named and cared for, there was an emotional connection. If you belittle that, or selfishly put your own needs above the person who’s genuinely upset, that person will never look at you the same way again.
That might sound like an overstatement, but grief can be very complicated. The person experiencing the loss is going through a range of emotions. One of those could be anger, and by saying something insensitive they may associate that anger with your face. Forever. Deceased dog = That jerk Jimmy I thought was my friend.
“[It] was really old/sick so it’s probably for the best.”
This is just as offensive to say about pets as it is to say about elderly or ill humans. While it may be technically true due to health issues, it’s not your place to say it. If the grieving person says this to try and reconcile the loss, just nod along and agree. But we still suggest silence.
Reader Submissions/Tell Us Your Stories
From Paula: «My favorite cat died prematurely of cancer. Someone said to me, ‘Well, they don’t live forever.’ It just felt very callous to me.»
From Joyce: «The one thing someone said to me that helped me most was ‘Be gentle with yourself.’ I had a sudden loss of my beautiful cat. It was drawn out yet unexpected and I grieved so hard. I still do. I can’t help it. It’s been 9 months Those words told me I had the right to grieve as I needed to, and not to apologize for ‘still’ grieving. There are no time limits or rules. Grief comes in waves. Sometimes there’s those sobbing uncontrollable waves, other times it’s just the silent streaming of tears. And sometimes you find you’re actually able to talk about it without the heart wrenching pain in your chest. But then, there it comes again unexpectedly one day. All of it is OK. Just be gentle with yourself. Don’t rush. Don’t ignore those who want to just sit with you or listen or talk. No one person has your relationship with your lost love, no matter how much they loved as well. So you, do you, and be gentle with yourself.»
If you’ve ever lost a pet, we’d really like for you to share the most thoughtful or infuriating things people have said or done after you experienced the loss. Send your stories here.