Do Dogs Say Goodbye Before They Die?

Science might not have the whole story yet, but let's look at what we do know about dog cognition and behavior as they reach the end of their lives.

Published November 19, 2023
Sad dog lying on the couch next to woman

My heart aches for you as you travel through the heart-wrenching journey of losing your best friend. As a canine cancer specialist, I have worked with many pet parents and their dogs who ventured over the rainbow bridge.  What I, and probably many of you, are wondering is: What do dogs understand about death? Do they know they're dying? And do they grieve when a companion dies? Let's take a look. 

Do Dogs Know When They're Dying?

We don't really know whether our dogs understand what's happening when they're not feeling well or when they're getting close to the end. But what's interesting is that, just like in the wild, our furry best friends sometimes like to be alone when they're sick. In nature, a sick wolf or wild dog might stay away from the pack to keep predators from finding them, which could put the whole group in danger.

This behavior goes way back to their ancestors. In the wild, it's all about keeping the pack safe, and a sick wolf might need to step back for the good of everyone. In our homes, even though our dogs are safe and far from these wild challenges, some of these old habits stick around. A dog that's feeling under the weather or getting older might pull back a bit, spend more time alone, or not be as social. It could be their way of going back to their roots, or maybe they want a peaceful spot to rest and feel better.

Pet parents argue that, since all dogs have some common signs that death is near, dogs understand entirely what's happening. Personally, I do believe dogs know when the end of their life is near, especially when they're dying from something like cancer or another illness. But that's just based on my experiences and those of past clients. 

Do Dogs Understand Death?

Our dogs (and cats) can't verbally communicate their feelings about death, but scientific research has found that the loss of a companion can significantly impact their behavior. Studies have observed that following the death of a fellow pet, many dogs and cats exhibit noticeable changes in behavior. These pets often become more attention-seeking and clingy towards their human caregivers.

Man petting sick English bulldog

These behavioral shifts could be interpreted as signs of grief or sadness due to the absence of their companion. According to the AVMA, surviving pets displayed behaviors like increased vocalization, changes in sleep patterns, and decreased appetite, which could be indicative of mourning.

It's possible that these behavior changes might be linked to a shift in household dynamics, like reduced competition for the owner's attention and affection. With the departure of a companion, pets might seek to fill the social void or adjust to the altered structure of their environment.

Can Dogs Sense Death?

Maybe? We've found that dogs can detect oncoming seizures in their humans, sniff out cancer cells, and understand our emotions. So, wouldn't it make sense for them to sense this in themselves? This is another question that scientists just don't know, but many dog owners have decided for themselves.

What we do know is that dogs do notice someone is missing from their home. They're highly sensitive to changes in their environment and routine, and the absence of a familiar person or fellow pet can definitely impact them.

You may notice a change in your dog's behavior when someone is missing. They might start to seem a bit anxious, go around looking for that person or pet, or even seem a bit down. It really shows just how closely they bond and how keenly they pick up on changes in their environment.

Religious and Cultural Beliefs

Many religions and cultures have different beliefs about death and dogs. 

Western Societal Beliefs

In many Western societies, like in the United States, there's a common belief that dogs are aware of their impending deaths. Stories and anecdotes often suggest that dogs exhibit unusual behaviors or seek solitude as they near the end of their lives.

Hindu Philosophy

Hindu philosophy often views animals as part of the cycle of life, death, and rebirth, with each soul evolving towards liberation. This belief could suggest that dogs, as sentient beings, have some level of awareness about their lives and deaths.

Native American Beliefs

Various Native American tribes hold animals, including dogs, in high regard, attributing to them spiritual awareness and roles as guides or messengers. This respect might extend to a belief in their awareness of their own mortality.

Woman Holding Dog

Islamic Beliefs

In many Islamic and Middle Eastern cultures, dogs are generally seen as unclean, and less emphasis is placed on their spiritual or emotional awareness. The idea of dogs sensing their death might not be a prevalent belief in these cultures.

Do Dogs Say Goodbye Before They Die?

When it comes down to it, we just don't have all the answers yet. Scientists are always learning more about dogs and how they understand the world. It's tough not having a clear answer on whether our dogs know when they're saying goodbye. But, from both a personal and professional standpoint, I'd say trust your gut on this one.

Do Dogs Say Goodbye Before They Die?