Can my dog be grieving and what can I do to help?
In this blog I cover the signs to look for in a grieving dog, what is happening on the inside and how you can help them. I also discuss how massage can be really beneficial for your dog at this time.
If you are reading this I am assuming that you believe dogs can grieve for a lost companion (human or animal) and that this grief can be profound and long lasting. In fact, dogs have the same neurological and hormonal systems as us and so I believe that a dog can experience loss and grief in exactly the same way we do.
So your dog has lost a close companion, how can you tell the are grieving? Things you might notice include:
Changes in appetite; eating less or appearing to pick at their food
Changes in sleep; either needing more or being restless and unable to settle like before
Vocalising more including crying or whimpering
Taking themselves away from everyone to be on their own
Sleeping where their companion used to rest
Shutting down with no visible interest in what is going on around them
Acting more fearful or needy
Licking, yawning or sighing more
Stiffness and a lack of stamina as if everything is too much effort
Aches and pains will hurt more and pain medication may not work as well
Problems with focus and a reduced attention span
This is Leah. She was 'shut down' following the loss of her life long canine companion and this is pretty much how she was when I first met her.
Her owner told me that she had become 'lazy' and just wasn't interested in anything anymore.
I thought this beautiful 5 year old collie cross was twice her age.
So what is going on?
Grief can be all consuming, physically painful and stressful on the body. When stressed the body is flooded with hormones including Cortisol and Adrenaline which can be life savers if the body can run away from or fight the threat they face. They are not helpful if the cause of the stress is grief. Prolonged exposure to stress hormones causes:
Body tissues to tighten and remain tight in preparation to flee or to fight. Over time this causes chronic (constant, low level) pain in the muscles and around the joints and increases the risk of injury.
Digestion to slow or stop and blood is diverted from the bowels to the big movement muscles. Access to nutrients is therefore restricted whilst the body remains in this state.
A compromised immune system. Immunity starts with the digestive system so poor digestion is already bad news. But then it relies on the lymphatic system, which circulates important cells around the body and to areas of damage. The lymphatic system relies heavily on the muscles that move the body to push the fluid around. When tissue is tight and a dog is moving less the ability to move fluid and these important immune cells around becomes restricted.
Pain! Tight muscles cause increased stress on joints so if your dog has an orthopaedic condition like arthritis or dysplasia the condition will be more painful. Stiff joints need more energy to move and why would you go to the effort if it hurts to move leading to a vicious cycle.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) like symptoms which further compromises the body's ability to digest and utilise food.
So how can you help?
Firstly in order to help your dog you will require a lot of kindness and patience. Remember that grief and recovery from it is not a linear process. Some days or weeks will be harder than others.
Take them to old, familiar places and calmly spend time there
Take them to new places but be careful not to overwhelm them, short trips and/or low stimulation areas are ideal to start with
Teach them new things; new tricks or skills take time to master and require significant mental input. Remember to keep sessions short and positive.
Allow them to have a quiet place they can go to, but encourage them out with quality time with you
Physical contact is extremely powerful for your dog but we tend to use fast moving, short, stimulating strokes (particularly when we are stressed). Slow, long strokes or static contact can be far more beneficial for our dogs when they are in such an emotional state.
Learn how to speak to your dog; we like to think they understand everything we say to them but they are far more interested in how you say it. Keep your pitch low and the rhythm slow and measured when interacting generally with your dog. The fast paced, high pitched voice can come out when you are doing something you want your dog to be excited about!
Think long and hard about bringing a new animal into the home. This can really help some dogs, but for others and particularly older dogs or those with significant pain it can be very hard for them to cope with. Play dates or day visits from known and trusted dogs would be a good starting point in helping you to assess how ready your dog is to live with another dog.
How massage can support your dog through the grieving process
Firstly, the tight tissue, chronic pain and restricted, painful joints can be addressed. Massage physically relaxes tissue, breaks adhesions (tissues that have become stuck together) and creates space between the body structures.
It is likely that your dog will initially need regular 'reminders' of the existence of this relaxed state because if a body stays stressed for any length of time it becomes 'normal'. Regular massage helps the body to know and then accept a more relaxed state of being as normal.
Secondly, and just as powerfully it can 'restart' the immune system through the use of specific manual lymphatic drainage technique (check the massage therapist has undergone training in these specialised techniques).
Thirdly, your dog is a physical being and addressing aches and pains through direct physical contact causes the happy hormones (Seratonin and Oxytocin) to flood the body. These hormones also encourage digestion and therefore relieve digestive discomfort and improve nutrient uptake. The re-introduction of these hormones in significant quantities can be profound.
Lastly, massage provides a physical connection which allows the dog to release emotional stress and process the grief. Massage can allow them to move forward and to re-engage with the world and the people who care the most for them.
"My little dog lost her canine companion to cancer. My 5 year old turned into a 20 year old over the months preceding and following Pearl's death. Meeting Karen was the best thing that happened to my little dog. After just the first treatment she was well on the way to getting back to normal. It was lovely to have my cheeky energetic little pal back again" Jo, Potten End
Anastasio Alexandre (2018) "Do Dogs Grieve the Loss of Their Human Owners?" https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/lifestyle/do-dogs-grieve/
Berit S. Cronfalk, Britt-Marie Ternestedt, and Peter Strang (2010) “Soft Tissue Massage: Early Intervention for Relatives whose Family Members Died in Palliative Care,” Journal of Clinical Nursing 19, no. 7–8 (April 2010): 1040–8.
Buzhardt, L "Do Dogs Mourn?" https://vcahospitals.com/know-your-pet/do-dogs-mourn
Fitch, Pamela (2002) "Depression: How Can Massage Therapy Help" Journal of Soft Tissue Manipulation (JSTM)
Gleeson, L (2017) "How Grief Manifests in the Body & Why Body-Based Approaches to Bereavement Support Improved Therapeutic Outcome" http://www.lizgleeson.com/blog/2017/7/18/how-grief-manifests-in-the-body-why-body-based-approaches-to-bereavement-support-improve-outcome
Stilwell, Victoria "Stress" https://positively.com/dog-behavior/behavior-problems/stress/
Williams, Litsa (2018) "When Grief Gets Physical: dealing with physical grief symptoms" https://whatsyourgrief.com/physical-grief-symptoms/
Wiley-Blackwell (2010) "Hand and feet massages provide consolation for bereaved relatives" https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/03/100324094638.htm