Do Pets Know When Their Owner Dies?

Sad Dog

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

There is some debate about whether or not our cats and dogs “know,” as humans know, that someone has died.

Pets can sense through biochemistry, smell, and change in behavior or lack of human response that a person has died. Pets also exhibit signs of grief similar to those of humans when they experience a loss of their human companion.

Here are four areas related to pets and the loss of their owner:

  1. The Scent of Loss
  2. The Grieving of Loss
  3. Recovering From Loss
  4. Preparing for Loss

1. The Scent of Loss

Dogs and cats form emotional bonds with humans and can sense when something changes. They can develop strong bonds with their owner. They are also adept at picking up on our nonverbal communications and can recognize subtle changes in our body chemistry, behaviors, and emotional state.

Many rest homes and hospices have included animals in their services, as some animals can sense when a person is sick or dying. Pets may notice changes in scents or a person’s slower movements even before the doctors or nurses do.

Dogs can be trained to scent such things as money, contraband, even restrooms (chlorinated water), and bodily chemical variations that indicate changes in health or living status. A dog can recognize the biochemical changes in a person’s smell when they die. For example, Search and Rescue dogs can distinguish between living and dead bodies when searching in rubble during disasters. 

Cats can also recognize these changes in our scent. This change in the scent of their owner can distress animals sometimes leading to pets exhibiting unusual behaviors.

Sad Cat

2. The Grieving of Loss

Animals do recognize when their owner is gone. There is some debate about how much pets actually understand about death. Pets may not understand death the way humans do, but even many humans struggle with the concept of death when someone they love dies. 

Pets, like humans, exhibit signs of grief. Each pet is likely to react differently to this loss, just as each human grieves uniquely based on their personality and their relationship with the deceased, their age, and their experience with death. 

It is recommended to take care and pay special attention to pets after their owner dies as pets may exhibit any number of unusual behaviors as indicated below: 

  • Pets may have sudden accidents in the house or pee in their beds due to stress.
  • Pets might exhibit destructive chewing, digging, or scratching behaviors.
  • Pets may show separation anxiety such as whining, loss of appetite, or depression.
  • Pets may hide or be unwilling to interact with other humans.
  • Some pets may run away in search of their owners.
  • Pets may search for their owner at the usual places, or stay near their grave or a place they spent time with their owner.
  • Pets may exhibit any number of other unusual behaviors when the pet is in mourning.
  • Some pets have even been known to become so distressed at the death of their owner that they might literally stress-eat the deceased.

3. Recovering from Loss

Just like humans, pets need time to adjust to the loss of their owner. Below are some ways to help a pet make these adjustments more smoothly.

  1. Keep the pet’s routine as much as possible.
  2. Show some extra attention, affection, and give treats.
  3. Put the pet in a safe place in the house when guests are coming and going so the pet is not overwhelmed or doesn’t escape in search of their owner.
  4. If re-homing the pet is necessary, find a permanent home to begin with to eliminate extra stress to the pet.
Sad Dog 2

4. Preparing for Loss

As many pet owners feel their pet is a part of the family or a beloved companion, it’s important to make plans for the pet’s care after one’s demise. In many situations where the owner is elderly and lives alone with their pet, the pet can be left uncared for in the home after the owner is removed. 

Sadly, pets are often overlooked in these types of situations by professionals who are attending or removing the owner’s body. Because the stress of loss may cause the pet to hide or withdraw, it is even more likely to be locked in the house or apartment and left there unattended for lengthy periods of time. Many of these forgotten pets will end up in shelters. 

Especially if one is elderly or sickly, it may be wise to ensure that there is a plan in place for the pet after your death so that it is taken care of in a manner the owner chooses and which will be the least distressing to the animal.

James Herriot 1

For some who have no family, making arrangements for their pet after their death can be daunting. 

Fortunately, there are organizations that will take these pets and re-home them. If this is a circumstance that might be necessary for your pet, it might be wise to look into the options beforehand and make arrangements with an organization, friend, or family member to obtain the pet shortly after your death so that the pet is not left in the home without food, water or affection.

Because the pet will already be grieving the death of their owner, making the least changes to their routine, home, or companionship will help the pet through the grieving process more smoothly. 

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