Do Dogs Know They're Dying?

Was Sadie really trying to tell her human companion that Oscar was dying?

Posted Feb 14, 2019

Do dogs know they're going to die? And what do their canine companions know about what's happening?

A few weeks ago, during my class on animal behavior at the Boulder County Jail, Joseph, one of the students, told me he couldn't wait for me to come because he had a great story about two dogs, Sadie and Oscar, with whom his parents and other family members lived. (See "Inmates and Art: Connecting With Animals Helps Soften Them" and links therein.)

During a phone call with his father, who told Joseph the following story based on what others witnessed, Joseph learned that Oscar, a senior dog, seemed to be doing very well and went to bed as usual on his pillow downstairs in the house where he lived. As usual, Sadie, Oscar's best friend, went to sleep near Oscar and all seemed normal.

Around midnight, Oscar got up and walked to the steps that led upstairs and tried in vain to gain footing. According to Joseph's father and others who lived in the house, Oscar had never done this before. Oscar was sprawled out at the foot of the steps and the noise awoke Sadie and she went over to see what was happening.

She sat with Oscar a few minutes, sniffing his body and whining softly, and then "she seemed extremely concerned and flew up the steps and ran directly to the bed where Joseph's father was sleeping."

By the time Joseph's father was able to go down the steps, Oscar had died. Joseph was told, "Sadie was moping around and seemed out of sorts. She knew something was wrong and wouldn't leave Oscar's body." 

Giavo, Pixabay free download
Close friends.
Source: Giavo, Pixabay free download

What can we learn from numerous similar observations suggesting both Oscar and Sadie knew Oscar was dying? Over the years, I've heard at least a dozen similar stories for dogs and other nonhuman animals (animals).*

For example, here's a brief description of Bella and Beavis' close friendship:

"Before Beavis passed away, he and Bella were inseparable. They ate together, played together, and even shared living quarters. Beavis passed away in 2012, but the pair's story resurfaced after a video that the owner shot of the two appeared on Reddit. In the heartbreaking video, Bella lies by the side of her deceased companion and appears to cling to the idea that Beavis might just be sleeping. As Bella seems to realize that her friend is not coming to life, she whimpers, nuzzles, and licks her friend as if trying to say goodbye."

After Joseph shared his story about Oscar and Sadie, the students and I got into a long and extremely interesting conversation. Some of the questions included, "Did Oscar know he was dying?' Did Sadie know that Oscar was dying?" and "Was Sadie trying to tell Joseph's father that something was wrong with Oscar?"

Opinions ranged widely from "Oscar knew he was dying and Sadie knew he had died and was trying to tell Joseph's father," to "Who knows, but this is a very interesting observation that shows that we really don't know much about dying and death in other animals and it's possible that he knew and so did she," to "Maybe Oscar was trying to get to Joseph's father because he didn't feel well and knew he would be comforted, and Sadie just happened to hear what was happening and got caught up in the action."

They asked me what I thought and I replied that we really don't know what other animals know about death and dying, but there are many examples of grieving and mourning among a wide range of animals.

My opinion is that something was going on both for Oscar and Sadie — he didn't feel well and was seeking out safety and comfort — and perhaps Sadie was picking up a unique stress/death-related odor or was concerned about Oscar's immobility and lack of reaction to her presence.

They asked if I knew why Sadie ran upstairs, and frankly, I told them I don't. This does not mean that she wasn't running upstairs to tell Joseph's father that something was wrong with Oscar. It simply means that we don't know for sure what was in her head and heart. 

We also discussed the importance of citizen science, and the story of Oscar and Sadie, along with many others, clearly shows that we can learn a lot from non-researchers' reports of dog behavior. I also mentioned that the plural of anecdote is data, and this really struck a chord with most of the students. What I simply mean here is that when we have a good number of stories that all point to certain conclusions, we shouldn't toss them out as being "just-so stories," but rather we should pay careful attention and develop ways to learn more about what other animals are thinking and feeling in different situations.

In my own fieldwork on different animals, I've observed wild coyotes and wild Adélie penguins displaying behavior patterns that strongly indicated they were experiencing some sort of grief for the loss of family members. I've also literally felt the grief elephants feel for the loss of another elephant.

Fourteen years ago, I had the opportunity to observe elephants with renowned elephant researcher Iain Douglas-Hamilton, founder of Save The Elephants. Iain and I were driving into the field in Samburu National Reserve in northern Kenya where he and his team of researchers have conducted groundbreaking fieldwork for decades, and I saw a group of elephants who formed a very loose group. Their heads were down, ears drooped, tails hung listlessly, and they were just walking here and there, moping around, seemingly lost in the moment, and apparently broken-hearted.

I asked Iain if there was something wrong because not only could I see their grief, but I also could feel it, and he told me the herd's matriarch had recently died and it wasn't clear if these individuals would get together again as they had been a tightly bonded group before she died. Just a few kilometers down the road I saw a group of elephants, each of whom was walking tall, heads up, ears up, and tails up. I could feel their happiness, clearly they were close friends, and they looked as content as could be.

Where to from here? What do we know about how dogs view dying and death and how can we help a grieving dog?

"In my work as a house call veterinarian specializing in end-of-life care, I saw many incidences of a dying pet’s animal friends acting as if they had some comprehension of the situation...But stories that reveal a pet’s understanding of their own impending death are harder to come by...

"I believe my own dog, Duncan, may have had a sense that his end was near...We’ll probably never be able to definitively answer the question of whether pets know when they are going to die. What is vital, however, is that owners and veterinarians recognize when the end is near so that we can provide all the love and care necessary to make their last days as good as they possibly can be." (Dr. Jennifer Coates, "Do Pets Know When They Are Going to Die?")

"When we get a better understanding of what's happening in their heads and hearts, we can use this information to help them along and do the best they can in troubled times."

From time to time, it's worth revisiting the how's and why's of animal grief and mourning because more and more data have shown clearly that it's arrogant and wrong to argue that we're the only species in which grief, mourning. and an understanding of dying and death have evolved.

We really don't need more data to know other animals grieve and mourn the loss of family and friends, and I'm sure as time goes on more and more species will be added to the list of animals who grieve. 

It's essential to remember, while grieving the loss of a canine companion, that a surviving dog who was their good friend also needs lots of attention and love.

Scott Morgan suggests, "The best medicine for a dog's broken heart is to keep life as normal as possible. Stick to her routine with walking and meals. Give her lots of attention and physical contact — petting, stroking and grooming. If possible, take her places where other dogs or dog lovers are. If she has lost her appetite, offer her some favorite foods and the occasional treat, but avoid using treats as a way to quiet her barking or whining. It may just breed a new bad habit."

I wanted to share the story of Oscar and Sadie because it is entirely consistent with other stories of which I'm aware. Do I know what was happening with some degree of certainty? No, I don't. However, something unique was happening both for Oscar and Sadie and "There's no reason to doubt that each knew something 'wrong' or 'bad' was happening," according to William, another student in the class.

I agree. Indeed, when I told a few people about Oscar and Sadie, some said surely he knew and she knew what was happening. I agree this could be a possibility and we should keep the door open on what dogs and other animals know about dying and death. 

A big question still remains, namely, why has grief evolved? The functions of grief (why it has evolved) remain a topic for discussion. It's been suggested that grief reactions may allow for the reshuffling of status relationships or the filling the reproductive vacancy left by the deceased, or for fostering continuity of the group.

Some theorize that perhaps mourning strengthens social bonds among the survivors who band together to pay their last respects. This may enhance group cohesion at a time when it's likely to be weakened. 

Grief itself is something of a mystery, for there doesn't seem to be any obvious adaptive value to it in an evolutionary sense. It does not appear to increase an individual's reproductive success. Whatever its value is, grief is the price of commitment, that wellspring of both happiness and sorrow.

Grieving and mourning clearly show that nonhuman animals are socially aware of what is happening in their worlds and that they feel deep emotions when family and friends die. Clearly, we're not the only animals who possess the cognitive and emotional capacities for suffering the loss of others.

Stay tuned for more discussion of what dogs and other animals know about dying and death. When we get a better understanding of what's happening in their heads and hearts, we can use this information to help them along and do the best they can in troubled times. We need to focus on the sick and dying dog as well as their surviving friends, nonhuman and human. 

There still is so much to learn and it's essential to keep an open mind about different opinions about this incredibly important and interesting subject. 

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