Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Do dogs understand death?

Reading Angus' post today about how Wilf is reacting to the loss of his brother Digby reminded me of how Petey has behaved during times of personal grief and mourning.

When my Mom passed away in her sleep last year, while staying with me, I had an unending stream of policemen, detectives, firemen and EMS workers coming into the apartment. (Apparently, this is not unusual when someone dies in a private home.) Petey has always assumed that anyone coming into the apartment is there to see him, so he greeted each with a waggy tail and a tennis ball offering in his mouth. He'd drop the ball by their feet, insisting that they play with him. So here are these serious men, bending to toss a ball, while asking me questions about my mother's death.

(Tosses ball) "Sorry about your loss, Ma'am." (toss the ball) "Umm, was your mother on any medications?" (toss the ball) "When was the last time she saw her doctor?" (toss the ball) "Wow, he's really good at catching the ball, isn't he?"

While Mica remained glued to my side all day, purring softly, Petey literally was having a ball and enjoying all the attention. I thought he might react when the coroners took Mom's body away—after all, he was very fond of his indulgent Granny—but instead, he just dropped the ball in front of them and wriggled away, waiting for the next game to begin.

Several days later, we arrived on Hilton Head for Mom's memorial. As we entered her house, Petey raced from room to room, looking for her. After exploring every room and closet, he came back to the family room, looked me in the eye and gave out a huge sigh, and quietly lay down.

A few days after we'd buried Mom, a huge Spring thunderstorm rolled in off the ocean late one afternoon. These are pretty much daily occurrences as the ocean warms up—loud house-shaking thunder and curtains of rain. In his younger days, Petey never seemed to mind storms or fireworks, but for the past few years, he needs to be with his Mom, sitting very closely to me for the duration of the storm.

On this particular evening, I was invited to dinner with some friends and, while the storm was definitely abating, it was still thundering when I reluctantly left to go meet them. When I returned a few hours later, I was surprised not to find Petey in the family room, where he'd usually snooze in a chair or on the couch. I called him and no response. I walked through the house looking for him and finally found him — curled up and sound asleep in the deep recesses of my Mom's walk-in closet, the scent of her perfume still wafting off her clothes hanging around him.

Clearly, he had sought her out for whatever comfort she could still provide.

He hasn't gone in there since.

As a puppy, Petey had both Mica and Maui as cat-siblings. Maui was a sweet girl, a shelter rescue, and she and Mica were never particularly close. She developed a cancerous tumor and at 15 years of age, I wasn't going to subject her to surgery so the decision was made to put her to sleep.
Unfortunately, on that last day, I could not get an appointment for her until 11:00 am. All evening and that morning, Petey stayed close by her side. Mica was aloof, but Petey was her companion to the very end.

While Mica seems very healthy right now, I am aware that at 20 years and 3 months, he is living on borrowed time. He and Petey have grown much closer—certainly closer than he ever was with either of my previous cats, Moki or Maui. I often find them curled near or next to each other or giving each other a gentle sniff.

With our new lifestyle, splitting our time between NYC and Hilton Head, Petey and Mica are apart for weeks at a time. My goal is to keep Mica's life as stress-free as possible, so plane trips are out of the question. Instead, I've been fortunate to have cat-loving friends come stay at the apartment in New York with him. (He keeps interrupting me for chin-scratches as I type this.)

I have no idea how Petey will respond to be an "only child" some day in the not-so-distant future. But I have a feeling, there will be some ball-throwing involved...


NAK and The Residents of The Khottage Now With KhattleDog! said...

As I commented on the post about Wilf and Digby, I hold that dogs can 'smell' it before we do -

I know when we had to let Kyrye cross, her three SibeStas that lived with her did not seem to miss her as expected - they could smell her time was close -

Same for the last night I had Khyra over to visit her - Khyra kept sniffing a few spots on Kyrye as if she knew as well -

Just my two cents -

Khyra's Mom

Rocky Creek Scotties and Rocky Creek Ramblings said...

You have posed a question I have often had myself and as people, I think different dogs handle it in different ways. I don't think any of the Scotties ever looked for Java after he was gone - it was like they knew, especially Lilly, that something had to happen because he wasn't getting any better. I think Wilf probably felt the same way. But I will have to say that loosing Java has caused Lilly to mature a lot - and she rarely leaves my side now.


Martha said...

I believe dogs sense things although others would argue in a rational way that they pick up on human feelings.
I don't think for a minute they understand death but they sense change.
Then again every dog and cat will be different and I think it will depend of their relationship.
I was a little worried the other day when I tried to take Martha out herself for a walk - Bailey dislikes the heat and was sound asleep - she kept looking backwards.
Finally she just sat down and refused to move until we turned in the direction of home - she then ran all the way home!!!
I am very happy that they have bonded so well but that poses another problem!
Anyways we miss you!

♥♥ The OP Pack ♥♥ said...

We totally agree that dogs do have a sense of death. We saw that for sure with Phantom when he lost his best pal Dakota. It took a while for him to let her go, but it was something to watch that grieving.

Thanks for sharing your experiences - more proof of why our pets are so endearing to us.

Woos - Phantom, Thunder, and Ciara

Golden Samantha said...

That is a very good question. I know that they grieve a loss - you and Wilf gave examples and so did commenters. I'm not sure that dogs understand death, as hoomans do (or don't?), but agree with Khyra that scent gives dogs a lot of the kind of information that tells them what's going on.

Dexter said...

When we had our little hound, Pi, put down, Angus was there for it. The vet came to our house and Angus watched while Pi crossed over the bridge and then sniffed her body. I think that helped him. Sure he would still get excited whenever he saw a basset hound from a distance, but he never went through the horrible depression that Mango seemed to suffer after Raja was put down (Mango pretty much stopped playing completely until Dexter came along). Who knows what our furry friends understand? THey know and yet they don't know.

Mango Momma

Sunny,Scooter, (sometimes Jamie) said...

I do think dogs understand death.
Of people and dog pack members.
And I know from experience when working in the hospital, that dogs in general could sense cancer in particular, and if a patient's time was near. Therapy dogs allowed to visit would absolutely take on different personas with patients close to the end.
I have seen it in my Daddy's dogs after he left one morning and was killed in a tractor accident and did not come home. They looked and looked and it took awhile before they came to realize not to look. I think they took the cues of my mother and I grieving to realize.
They also know when a dog pack member dies. They may not think in our words "Brother has died" But they do know brother is gone and not coming back. It can be heartbreaking to have one look for the lost pack member, but they , like people, have a grieving time.
I can only imagine the difficulty of that day when your Mom passed for you. I send you hugs, and lots of them. It does not surprise me that Petey sought out the familiar smells that night of thunder.
I know they do. And I had one cat that was 20 when a horrible accident took her. Dara, the Siamese. She knew too what death was. She just displayed it in a different manner.
Jamie and the sundogs

Lucy-Fur, as typed by Dr. Liz said...

They know. I am convinced of it; when our miniature poodle Billy left us, our standard poodle, Ben, who was his constant partner in crime looked for him for quite a while. Fiona, on the other hand, certainly knew that TaiChi was long living on borrowed time, and would sleep close to her (especially when it was cold) to help keep her warm. When TaiChi died in my arms (in her sleep), Fi licked my face. She didn't look for her later - she knew what had happened, and instead focused on making me feel better. It's amazing, really.

-Liz, Fiona's Mom

3 doxies said...

This is a much beautiful and thought provoking post. Now, I remember when I had to haves my female surgery, my brudder kept looking fur me while I was at da clinic. He mopped all day and wouldn't eat. But when I came home he sniffed my incision, went to eat and then layed withs me fur da rest of da day...he never left my side. But mum has said if sumptin happens to Albert then a new doggie will be in order cuz I would grieve.
Now I haves a solution to your dilema Petey's mom...get another doggie...heheehe, or you cans just take me to Hilton Head with ya'll. Mom used to go there ALL da time.
pees: we tried to post on your last post but couldn't fur some was wonderfully written and very poetic.

WFT Nobby said...

Uncle Petey
Gail says that I am too young to understand about death but that she thinks this post was very thoughtful and interesting.
Tennis balls, on the other hand, I am beginning to appreciate, although I am still not totally certain what to do with them (mine are only baby sized ones at the moment). Perhaps you could advise?
Toodle pip! Bertie.

ScrapsofMe said...

Hmmm. I'm confused for sure. Puffy was not well, and I tried to comfort him by giving him my stuffies instead of ripping his head off. Then he left. Then he came back and he was all better for a day, then he got sick again, then he left and he's not come back yet. So I look for him by the door and in the car and in the yard. And I worry. So I sit next to HER as she seems to be in control. Actually I've been sitting ON her, which is odd for me. And it's no fun eating anymore. Before it was always a race to see who got done first and then go check each others bowlies. Today I didn't eat a thing, even though she put out my fave dinner. The Mr. took me to the beach the other day and that was fun, but other than that I've not been playing with my balls or stuffies. Just really concerned about him not being around.


Jake of Florida said...

Thinking about Wilf, I've been asking myself the same question. A dog knows when something has changed -- but doesn't know whether it's for forever or just for a while. And I so wish there was a way to let him know the answer.

On a less final level, whenever we take Jake and Just Harry to board, I always wonder if they know it's just for a while.

And I noticed a few weeks ago, when JH had slipped outside without our realizing it, and was sitting at the end of the driveway until a friend brought him to the door that Jakey knew something was wrong. He sniffed and kissed JH in a way he never does, as if to say, whew, I was worried about you.

So much to think about. If only we knew the answers.


Deetz said...

We know! I don't know if we understand it, but we know.
My mom has been silent since reading this post, reflecting on how I have acted when Charlotte went missing and when Gizmo passed and how I stayed by him to the end...and then the most tragic of accidents, Sharkie. I still look for Sharkie, ya know. I look everyday! Even though I know where he is buried, I still expect him to come and play tug of war with me still.
This was a well worded and very peaceful post.
Thank you

Tama-Chan, Benny, Vidock, Violette, Ollie, Heloise, Momo, Ryu said...

I was not here when Sen-Chan died but Tama-Chan, who was very attached to him was apparently quite bereft. And it was Tommy who took up where Sen-Chan left off, playing with her, cuddling her and following her around (she was still a kitten) as though he just knew that she needed looking after.


Duke said...

What an excellent post!Thank you for sharing your personal experiences with us, Petey's mom.

Love ya lots,
Maggie and Mitch

Clive said...

I certainly believe that animals sense death and grieve when an animal or person they have known dies. We always had two dogs at home when I was a child - working gun dogs and tough dogs but when one got sick or one died, it was incredible to see the suffering in the other dog. We always immediately got a second dog again.

Clive here certainly picks up when one of us in the house is sick or unhappy and he pines incredibly when left alone for even the shortest time. He knows five minutes before Murray bus comes home that he is on his way ... likewise with Colm's car in the evening. His understanding of what is going on in the house is amazing ... today we had two little cousins here who were a touch over friendly with Tinkerbell and he sat down in their way to protect her. Tinkerbell is also getting very old but I know for sure that Clive will really miss her.

Murray's Mom

Two French Bulldogs said...

Good thoughts and we agree cause we do smell stuff..when the time is near or diseases, etc
Benny & Lily

Bocci said...

What a thought-provoking post, Petey's Mom.

When I lost my wire fox, Carson 2 years ago (he was 16 and ailing from kidney failure), my kittie Bella sat on him he entire night before he was scheduled to be put to sleep early the next morning. She always curled up beside him, but that night she insisted on laying on top of him. This freaked me out and I kept removing her, but she insisted and I finally relented. After he did not return, she paced the house wailing for about 2 weeks.
Who knows?

Marvin -The Hollow Hound said...

This was a lovely post. Thank you for sharing.

My Dad was very fond of Marvin, but my Dad was blind, however Marvin always went over to him, and kinda nudged his knee, to let Dad know he was there, then Dad would put his hand down to stroke Marvin, and Marvin would do a gentle lick of his hand. A Marvin kiss, as we call it.

Dogs are such wonderful, intuitive creatures.

Jeannie xxxxxx

Piappies World said...

Hello Petey,

We are saddened about the crossing of Digby and Jackson.

We also think that dog probably have a way to dealing with death especially since they also develop strong bonds with their hoomans and furry families. We are touched with the story you shared and we pray that you and Mica will have many more happy and fun times together.

We hope it would be alright for us to include you in our friend's list to share adventures together.

-Fudgie, Princess, Frappie, Mocha, Sugar, Wai-Pai, Wai-Max & the Piappies

Eric said...

Lovely post Petey. I do think we dogs and cats can sense something about death. Before me Mom had two cats. They were always together until one of them became ill. For 2 years they stayed in seperate rooms. They didn't sleep together again until the final couple of weeks and the final day when one of them was put to sleep. The remaining cat went around for days mewing and looking for her everywhere, refusing to eat.

As for dogs.We know much more than we are telling. What about your famous ancestor Petey? Grey Friar's Bobby? Sob.

Mom has a fascinating book she's currently reading:- Dogs that Know when their Owners are coming home and other unexplained powers of animals. (Serious book written by a scientist.)

Wiry love bestest. Eric xxx

Donna said...

O hai. My human friend's Aunt had to go to Heaven too. We were all sad, but at least we have the good memories. It makes us feel better to remember the fun things. :)

How Sam Sees It said...

I think dogs understand loss, and it affects them too. When Cisco passed away, Sam seemed so detached. He seemed to understand that her being gone was different this time.


Unknown said...

Hi petey

would u do me a favor? Tell me who u think is best flick I suspect voter tampering and really want to uphold integrity of the top honor. Would u reply with your vote? It will be anonymous
Thx norwood 
Sent from my iPad of the year

Unknown said...

How beautifully you write!loved all of your posts that I read.
Ginger and Buddy haven't come across death yet, thankfully, but the sensitivity and emotional quotient that they have surprises me very much sometimes.
ginger is extremely emotional and very very attached to me.i have this habit of taking a bath just before i retire for the night.she would remain by my side come what may. sometimes, even when she is down with a cold,feverish, she would stand outside my bathroom door late at night,waiting patiently. and she need not be told when i am done with whatever i am doing. she immediately gets up even before she is told and waits for me at the door, ready to go to the bedroom.she won't go sleep unless i do,however tired or sick she may be.
Buddy and she are very sensitive when anyone in the house is unwell.they would be much quieter, much subdued and less playful, would go lie down and be near whoever is sick,get their toy or ball but just lie down with it nearby,as if to say take this toy and be happy.
dawgs definitely can understand and feel and are much more sensitive than many humans I know.

Ginger n Buddy's Mummy

Huskee and Hershey said...

I think they do... I truly believe so. When I was pregnant, there were countless times where Hershey would lay her head on my tummy as I lay on my bed watching TV. She'd drift off to sleep for a long time in that position (so long as I don't move). When I miscarried, she stopped doing so immediately and I always wondered if she knew that the baby she was safeguarding is gone.

I am still waiting for the day when she'll come and lie on my pregnant belly again.

What Petey did is so sweet... I had tears in my eyes as I read about how he sought comfort in your mom's walk-in closet.

Joe Stains said...

What a great post, we are not looking forward to the day that clever looking cat is not part of your posts.