Can animals die of a broken heart
My Dog Died and My Heart Is Broken: Hurt, Hope, and Healing
My dog died and my heart is broken — 10 years later I still miss his presence.
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The loss of a loved one can be an indescribable time in your life. All of those moments you shared together are both a comfort and a source of distress as you’re faced with what the future now holds.
If you’re a pet lover, you know these words are just as true for a beloved animal as they are for the people in our lives.
In some ways, as I learned with my dog Bandit, the loss of a pet can feel as if you’ve lost a part of yourself.
I’ve always been an animal lover, though my friends and family would tell you — and I admit to it — I’ve been more of a “cat person” than a “dog person.”
But of all the animals I’ve had the privilege to love, my dog Bandit will always hold a special place in my heart and memories.
I wasn’t looking for a dog when Bandit came into my life.
I was working at a veterinary hospital, and a co-worker brought him in. Her friends had gotten the family a puppy, not realizing Bandit (a rottweiler/chow mix) would grow up to be a pretty big boy.
I saw him in the kennel, his big puppy eyes staring up at me, his feet too big for his body, and I knew he would come home with me.
Bandit was a happy dog. He was laid back and casual. I never heard him bark, but for one time, he stood to protect me on a walk at the park when a group of dogs was running loose.
He was always content, even when the cat would lay in his bed, daring him to come and try to take it back. Despite his size, he never imposed himself.
Bandit was my shadow, and when I went through a severe bout of depression, he was my stalwart companion, exploring mountains, lakes, and caves with me while I was lost in thought.
He was the best friend I could have ever asked for.
As my life circumstances changed, I had to leave Bandit for some time while I moved. One night, I got a call that he wasn’t doing well. He was older then, his muzzle silvered and his walk slow, and I rushed back to pick him up.
That night, Bandit passed away as he slept next to me. I know without a doubt he was waiting for me to come get him.
Ten years later, I still miss him. I miss his happy expressions, his quiet contemplation.
I have lost both pets and people in life, and one is not greater than the other. Grief is grief.
Pet loss and grief
How close you feel to a person or a pet contributes to the level of grief you feel at their loss.
For many people, pets are elevated to the status of family members — sometimes, they’re the only family members you might have.
There’s no right or wrong way to feel grief. It’s an individual process, and only you can fully understand the depth of the bond you had with your pet.
For me, Bandit was more than a dog. He could look at me and know when I needed him. He could tell me, without having words, that he was there for me.
He treated me better than some people have treated me. It’s no surprise to me that my grieving process was similar to others I’ve experienced for family and friends.
Broken heart syndrome
Broken heart syndrome is a real medical condition.
It’s also known as stress-induced cardiomyopathy or Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, and it can affect anyone of any health status.
Broken heart syndrome occurs from an intense surge of stress hormones related to an emotional event — including the death of a pet.
This extreme stress response can mimic symptoms of a heart attack and may include:
- chest pain
- shortness of breath
- abnormal heartbeats
In some cases, broken heart syndrome can cause cardiogenic shock, a potentially fatal condition where the heart muscle becomes too weak to pump enough blood.
For me, losing Bandit was like losing my best friend plus a piece of myself. Something indescribable vanished with his passing.
While human friends and family can offer loyalty, love, and companionship, with Bandit, there were no conditions, no measures.
He didn’t get angry at me for miscommunications. He didn’t judge my choices. He didn’t place standards on me I had to achieve. He was just happy to be with me, my flaws and all.
It’s a level of acceptance many people have only found in the company of animals, and it’s part of why losing a dog can hurt more than losing a human.
How long does it take to grieve a pet?
There’s no “right” amount of time to grieve a pet.
You also may not experience clearly defined stages of grief like denial, anger, or bargaining.
Your process is unique to you. It can involve the attachment you felt to your pet, your current circumstances, and how you cope with loss overall.
But if you aren’t working progressively through grief, if it feels as if it’s not improving or getting worse, you may be experiencing complicated grief.
Complicated grief is a mental health state defined by persistent, unhelpful thoughts and grieving behaviors. It’s grief that doesn’t go away over time.
How to accept your dog’s death?
You’re allowed to experience grief for your dog. It’s a natural emotion, and research shows pet owners often mourn pets on the same level as human companions.
To help you accept the loss of your dog, you can try the same methods that can help with the loss of a person:
- expressing what you’re feeling through talking, journaling, art, or composing
- honoring your pet with a memorial, donation, or charitable endeavor
- taking care of yourself by eating right and getting plenty of sleep
- visiting with others who care for you
- joining support networks
- seeking grief counseling
- find outlets, like fitness classes or hobbies
When is the right time to get a new dog after your dog dies?
Knowing when you’re ready for a new dog can be challenging.
Hasty decisions can mean unhappy human-animal partnerships or even cause a type of regret known as the new puppy blues.
Ultimately, the thought of providing a loving home for a new dog should be a source of joy, even if you’re still missing the pet that’s passed.
If you can’t be around dogs without feeling overwhelming sadness, keep unfairly comparing new dogs to your old dog, or resent new dogs, you might not be ready.
A new dog deserves to be loved and appreciated for their individuality. They’re not a replacement and not a lesser version of your previous dog.
You’ll know you’re ready to adopt when the space in your heart for your old dog can share space with the love of a new dog.
If your previous dog was an immense source of emotional support in your life, you might wish to speak to someone about emotional support animals and if one might be right for you.
You don’t have to work through a broken heart alone.
The following options can help you during the loss of a pet:
- The International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association (ICCFA): Offers pet loss memorial services and helpful tips.
- Rainbow Bridge Pet Loss Grief Center: A hub of resources including chat options, forums, grieving tips, and frequently asked questions.
- Pet loss support hotline: Hosted by Cornell University, a leading national veterinary college, reachable at 607-218-7457.
- Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement: Provides education on euthanasia as well as memorial options and support networks.
One of life’s known tragedies is that most of us will outlive our animal companions.
Loving a dog is powerful, but being loved by a dog is something that touches the human heart in a way often absent in other parts of life.
If your dog has died and you’re brokenhearted — it’s OK. You’ve experienced a major loss, and it’s natural to grieve.
Allow yourself to experience the emotions. If you feel stuck, you can help yourself by finding ways to memorialize your pet, honor their memory, and express your emotions.
Bandit was a happy, loving dog, and I know he wouldn’t have wanted his passing to cause me any pain.
I honor him today by loving more dogs — and cats — and providing them with fulfilling, joy-filled lives of their own.
Can pets die of a broken heart?
The 'World’s Cutest Dog' Boo died in 2019 of what his owners think was a broken heart. The news of his passing came around a year after his pet companion Buddy passed away.
Boo’s owner wrote in a Facebook post: “I brought Boo home in the spring of 2006 and so started the greatest, most heart-warming friendship of all time. Shortly after Buddy died, Boo showed signs of heart issues. We think his heart literally broke when Buddy left us.”
Boo’s story doesn't seem to be an isolated case. In November 2017 another dog made the news when, after days of wandering around an airport appearing to be looking for someone, she died of what was believed to be a broken heart.
Wandering Cloud, as the staff at Palonegro airport, Colombia named her, had spent a month roaming the terminal, sniffing passers-by, before she curled in a corner, motionless and refusing to eat.
The pooch was later picked up by vets, but despite their best efforts, she died shortly after.
It's believed that the dog was abandoned at the airport and when her search failed to reunite her with her owner, she died.
But was it sadness that killed her and Boo, or was their death a coincidence that allows animal lovers to indulge in the belief that pets experience human emotions?
Can animals die of sadness?
A heart condition in humans, often caused by severe stress such as the loss of a loved one, known by the popular name of 'broken heart syndrome', causes a weakening of the heart muscle that can result in heart failure and even death.
So, if a human can die of a broken heart then perhaps a pet can too?
The team of the South Pacific County animal shelter in Washington released a heart-breaking report, saying that they’d looked in veterinary medicine for the mention of broken heart syndrome, and despite not being able to find it, have witnessed it first-hand.
Cory McKeown, the author of the report, says that cats and dogs brought in to the shelter often stop eating and curl in a corner of their cages hiding their heads in their paws.
However, as McKeown says, there is no mention of broken heart syndrome in veterinary literature and there is no medical evidence that indicates that pets suffer the physical symptoms of broken heart syndrome.
Furthermore, for every story of a pet dying following the loss of an owner, there is one of a pet spending years stoically waiting for the return of the deceased and eventually dying of old age. Greyfriars Bobby even has his own statue in Edinburgh.
We spoke to veterinary surgeon Dr Neerja Muncaster who said: "Animals certainly can exhibit significant behavioural and character changes when an animal or person that they are attached to dies.
"These changes can trigger physiological changes that can lead to the deterioration of that animal's health.
"Conversely, I have also witnessed positive changes in behaviour, for example, increased confidence and interaction, in animals who have been dominated or bullied by another animal in their household. This can occur in some multi-cat households. When the aggressor dies, the more timid cat will often exhibit altered behaviour."
Veterinary medicine provides no proof that pets die of heart failure due to stress, but observations show that pets do go through behavioural changes and even death when they lose an owner or a companion, suggesting that perhaps there is something happening to them.
Can pets die from grief?
When Dr Stanley Coren PhD, canine psychologist, visited an old friend, he was surprised to find their pet companion group had gone down from two Boston terriers and a cat to only one Boston terrier.
He told Psychology Today, that his friend explained that her dog Lily had died and shortly after her cat Rosie followed, leaving one surviving pet.
In a 2011 article for the Daily Mail, reporting on the death of a dog in Afghanistan that had lost its owner, animal psychologist Roger Mugford said that he’s witnessed "a number of cases in which pets have died of grief".
These stories bring to mind a phenomenon among people known as the widowhood effect where one partner of a couple dies and the other becomes severely depressed and follows within the next three months.
And even though the widowhood effect has not been documented in veterinary medicine, according to a study conducted by the journal Animals, there is plenty of evidence that pets experience grief in a similar way to humans.
The study, a survey of 279 people, showed both cats and dogs can experience severe behavioural changes following the passing of a fellow animal. The animals often kept searching for the deceased and whined and whimpered when they couldn’t find them.
In addition, the cats and dogs in the study, a lot like Wandering Cloud and the animals in Cory McKeown’s animal shelter (and just like humans when they are depressed), exhibited moderate to severe loss of appetite, lack of energy and loss of vivaciousness.
Unfortunately, when cats stop eating, they are quick to develop a condition called fatty liver disease, which causes liver failure and eventually death. Cats normally develop the disease as the result of stress-related appetite loss; so, when cats grieve, it is not their heart that takes the hit but their liver.
Something similar happens to dogs when they stop eating. A number of biochemical reactions kick in and in order to make up for the lack of energy, the body begins digesting internal fats and the metabolism becomes sluggish. Lethally low level of blood sugar levels set in.
So, it could be argued that, in cases of severe loss of appetite, pets' grief leads to a form of indirect self-destruction by refusal to feed.
The warning signs of grief in animals are many, so learning to recognise them could help owners take action before the symptoms of grief have taken an irreversible toll.
Signs of grief in pets
Signs might include but are not limited to:
Louder, more frequent and prolonged vocalisation – meowing, barking, whining, whimpering, etc
Lick granuloma – a skin rash that is the result of excessive grooming and licking
Loss of appetite – rejecting food
Excessive clinginess – demanding a lot of attention
Oversleeping during the day and being restless at night
Continually checking the spots where the deceased used to go
Lack of energy and interest
Some dogs will start crying and whimpering as soon as they sense their owner is about to set off to work – this is separation anxiety and can be extremely severe for some pets, especially after bereavement.
Pets who are extremely attached to their owners (or fellow companion pets) tend to be hit the worst by separation anxiety and grief. The bigger the attachment bond, the more severe their mourning.
How to help a grieving pet?
Vet Dr Karen Becker recommends keeping the pet's routine as stable as possible, including feeding, walks and other daily interactions and encouraging and providing plenty of distractions to take the pet’s mind off the loss, such as long walks, exercising together and playing fetch.
In addition, she advises giving your pet enough time to cope with the loss before you introduce a new pet into the family.
Pets have a natural ability to pick up on the moods of their owners, so avoiding emotional outbursts around your pet might also speed up his or her recovery.
In addition, nearly all of our pet insurance policies cover treatment for behavioural disorders.
Evolutionary biologists believe that grief has the purpose of motivating emotional bonding and attachment. And where there is attachment, there is separation anxiety.
Domesticated animals are very social and easily become deeply attached to their owners and companion pets and can suffer when they lose them.
If you're concerned about your dog or cat's behaviour after the loss of a two-legged or four legged companion, make an appointment with your vet.
Behaviour treatment might even be covered by your pet insurance. All our policies cover behavioural treatment where you've been referred by your vet.
All our policies also include free unlimited video vet calls. They might be able to give you some useful advice for your grieving pet as well.
Broken Heart Syndrome: a disease "out of the head" from which you can die
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Your heart can suffer after some unfortunate event, and your brain is most likely responsible for your "heartbreak", experts say.
Swiss scientists are conducting a study on the so-called "broken heart syndrome". nine0005
Psychological stress can cause acute transient left ventricular dysfunction. The syndrome is manifested by the sudden development of heart failure or chest pain, combined with ECG changes characteristic of myocardial infarction of the anterior wall of the left ventricle.
- Scientists have found out how stress causes heart disease
Most often, this syndrome develops against the background of stressful situations that cause strong, often sharply negative, emotions. Such events can be the death of a loved one or separation. nine0005
Scientists do not yet have complete clarity on how this happens. In the publication of scientists in the medical journal European Heart Journal, it is suggested that the syndrome is provoked by the brain's response to stress.
The "broken heart syndrome" was first described by the Japanese scientist Hikaru Sato in 1990 and was named "takotsubo cardiomyopathy" (from the Japanese "takotsubo" - a ceramic pot with a round base and a narrow neck).
Image copyright Getty Images
This is different from a "normal" heart attack, when blood flow to the heart muscle is blocked. Blockage of blood flow to the heart occurs when there is a blood clot in the coronary arteries. nine0005
However, the symptoms of broken heart syndrome and heart attack are similar in many ways, most notably difficulty breathing and chest pain.
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Often some sad event is a kind of trigger that provokes the onset of the syndrome. However, joyful events that cause strong emotions can also lead to the development of broken heart syndrome. For example, getting married or getting a new job. nine0005
Broken heart syndrome can be temporary, in which case the heart muscle will recover in a few days, weeks or months, and in some cases the syndrome can be fatal.
In Britain, about 2500 patients are diagnosed with broken heart syndrome each year.
Image copyright Christian Templin, University Hospital ZurichImage caption
X-ray of the heart of a person diagnosed with takotsubo syndrome
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The exact cause of broken heart syndrome is unknown to scientists. However, it is suggested that this syndrome may be associated with an increase in the level of stress hormones - for example, adrenaline.
Elena Gadri from the University Hospital Zurich, together with her colleagues, studied the brain activity of 15 patients diagnosed with broken heart syndrome. nine0005
Imaging data showed significant differences in the brain activity of these patients from that observed in 39 participants in the control group, who were healthy.
Much less communication has been noted between the areas of the brain responsible for controlling emotions and the body's unconscious (automatic) responses (such as the heartbeat).
"Emotions are formed in the brain, so it is quite possible that the disease is formed in the brain. And then the brain sends the appropriate signals to the heart," says Gadry. nine0005
Further research is needed to understand the mechanism of the syndrome.
The Swiss scientists who conducted the study had no CT scans of the patients before they were diagnosed with broken heart syndrome. Therefore, researchers cannot claim that the reduction in connections between different parts of the brain was a consequence of the development of the syndrome, or that the syndrome developed due to the reduction in connections.
"This is a very important part of the study, it will help us better understand the nature of this syndrome, which is often overlooked, and it continues to be a mystery to us," says Joel Rose, head of the British organization Cardiomyopathy. nine0005
"These studies will help us understand what role the brain plays in the syndrome and why some people are affected and others are not," says Joel Rose.
"These observations confirm our long-standing assumption about the special role of the connection between the brain and heart in the formation of takotsubo cardiomyopathy," says researcher Dana Dawson from the British Heart Foundation.
Can you die from a broken heart?
If you break it with a hammer, you will surely die. But we will talk about mental anguish and suffering. Dedicated to lovers of suffering. Read carefully, learn how to avoid the consequences of unhappy love. Which can lead not only to mental pain, but also to real, physical consequences. For those with heart problems, this is a must read. nine0005
It is not uncommon to hear people who have lost loved ones said that their heart is broken. Usually this phrase describes the mental pain that one has to experience due to the loss of loved ones.
When someone loses a loved one or experiences a terrible loss, people say that their heart is broken. But we are used to thinking that this is a figure of speech, which is usually used to describe the mental pain associated with the loss of a loved one. Can a broken heart show up in physical symptoms? nine0005
It appears so. Moreover, in rare cases, it can become a threat to life. Last December, Debbie Reynolds passed away just days after her daughter, actress Carrie Fisher, died suddenly of a heart attack. Researchers may have found another case in Texas, according to The New England Journal of Medicine: A study published this week describes a woman with heart pain that may have been caused by the loss of her beloved pet. This phenomenon is not fully understood. nine0005
But potential cases occur frequently enough for it to have a name: Takotsubo syndrome, or Takotsubo cardiomyopathy.
This translates to "octopus trap" in Japanese. The name reflects the development of the problem. A classic heart attack forms a clot (usually plaque) in a person's blood vessels. It interferes with blood flow, which carries vital oxygen, to the heart. But in the case of Takotsubo syndrome, a massive heart attack occurs without any identifiable clot. nine0005
Takotsubo's symptoms mimic a normal heart attack. The patient often complains of shortness of breath, dangerously high blood pressure and chest pain. But instead of a clot, weakened heart muscles are to blame. Clinical reports and research on Takotsubo Syndrome suggest that the condition almost always occurs in people who have experienced major trauma or extreme emotional distress—the loss of a loved one, especially a spouse or child. The cause of the syndrome is likely related to the hormonal response to extreme stress, according to a study published in the aforementioned journal in 2005. nine0005
When someone is exposed to a particularly traumatic event, the body often releases a flood of stress hormones into the bloodstream. The stress hormones themselves can cause weakening of the muscles in the heart. If you look at the heart, it will be as if tightly compressed in the lower part, and the upper part will swell slightly. This is how octopuses behave when they are trapped. Although Takotsubo syndrome can affect a person at any age, it is rarely fatal. In most cases, a person recovers within a few weeks. But in certain situations, everything can end in death. nine0005
Last year, The New York Times reported that because Takotsubo syndrome mostly affects women - and is usually fatal in older women - doctors believe that estrogen may play a protective role in heart blood vessels. As estrogen levels decline with age, older women are at increased risk of death. So yes, in some cases, "heartbreak" may not just be a catchphrase. This could be the physical end for the person. nine0005
Ruth and Harold "Doc" Knapke met in elementary school. During World War II, they exchanged letters, and when Doc returned, their romance began. Ruth and Harold married, raised six children, and celebrated sixty-five anniversaries together. And then one day in August 2013, they died in their room in a nursing home in Ohio.
According to their daughter Margaret Knapke, for several years she and her siblings have witnessed their father's health deteriorating. The man suffered from long-standing heart problems and began to show the first signs of dementia. Harold lost interest in everything that used to please him, and almost constantly dozed off. nine0005
Ruth was then diagnosed with a rare infection. She lay unconscious in the same room with her husband, and it soon became apparent that these were her last days. The children gathered to tell their father that their mother would never wake up. “Harold didn't go to bed that day. I saw how he spent hours thinking about what we said, ”says Margaret. He died the next morning, Ruth died the same evening.
The case of the Knapke couple is special, but not unique. Almost every two months a similar sentimental story is published in some provincial newspaper. In July, People magazine told the story of 94-year-old Californians Helen and Lesa Brown, who have been married for seventy-five years. They were born on the same day and died 24 hours apart. In February, a photo of 83-year-old Ed Hale and his 82-year-old wife Florine went viral on social media. It shows the couple holding hands over the railing of their hospital beds. They died a few hours apart.
Death from a broken heart is a literary cliché, even Shakespeare wrote about "murderous grief". The emotional devastation of the death of a loved one can certainly cause physical pain as well. But can a person actually die from a broken heart? nine0005
It appears so. For example, stress-induced cardiomyopathy, also known as broken heart syndrome. Studies of the symptoms caused by the loss of a loved one prove the negative impact of stress on human health.
Research from around the world has shown that the number of people who die weeks or months after their loved ones has increased. In 2011, scientists from Harvard University and Yamanashi University (Tokyo) compared the results of 15 different studies that included data from more than two million people. nine0005
Scientists have found that the risk of death during the first six months after the loss of a loved one increased by 41%. And this applies not only to the older generation. People younger than 65 years of age were also at risk, and it was much higher in men than in women.
Gender differences can be explained by simple logic: when wives die, their spouses are more likely to be isolated.
“The loneliness was a big blow for them, and for the men who didn't know how to shop or cook, it was also a blow to their health and digestive system,” explained Tracey Schroepfer, professor of social work at the University of Wisconsin (USA). nine0005
Although women can bear the loss of a spouse more easily, they are also not immune from the deadly consequences of grief. A 2013 study found that the risk of maternal death within two years of losing a child increased by 133%.
Broken heart syndrome
Unlike a heart attack, broken heart syndrome does not develop from blocked arteries. It appears due to the sudden release of large amounts of stress hormones such as epinephrine (better known as adrenaline) and its chemical sister norepinephrine. A similar release of hormones is a normal response of the body to a stressful situation. nine0005
However, in some cases, an unexpected release of hormones disrupts the heart, preventing it from pumping blood. On X-ray or ultrasound, the left ventricle looks enlarged and deformed. Its deformed shape is thought to resemble a Japanese octopus trap called takotsubo, hence the other name for the syndrome, takotsubo cardiomyopathy.
Damage to the heart muscle is reversible - often patients recover completely. But the case can also end in death if the deformed ventricle does not pump enough blood. nine0005
Grief of loss can affect the functioning of the heart in the long run. British researchers have collected data on more than thirty thousand living widowers and widowers. According to their study, published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine, the risk of heart attack and heart attack doubles during the first thirty days after the death of a spouse, but then returns to normal levels.
The heart is not the only organ that suffers from grief. James Coan, a clinical psychologist and neuroscientist, explains that the immune system can also be affected. In order to trigger the release of hormones that can help you escape from a bear or a robber, the body needs to borrow resources from other body systems. nine0005
What is love
Love is not only positive emotions. Happy relationships can protect us from the negative effects of stress. In research examining the effect of loved one's support on stress responses, James Coan puts volunteers in an MRI machine and warns them of a possible electric shock.
From time to time, a symbol appears before the eyes of a volunteer, indicating a twenty percent chance of an electric shock in the next few seconds. The goal of the study, according to Koan, is to create "anticipation anxiety" in the subjects, which is expressed in facial expressions - similar to the feelings experienced from daily stress, such as a looming deadline. nine0005
Volunteers do not go through this process alone. Some of the subjects are held by the hands of people they trust - a lover, parent or close friend. The rest hold the hand of strangers. In the course of the study, Koan found that the activity in the hypothalamus, the area of the brain associated with the body's response to stress, differs between a relative and a stranger holding a hand. For those with whom a loved one was close, brain activity associated with stress decreases.
Helen Fisher, an anthropobiologist at Rutgers University and author of Why We Love, says that the trauma of separation highlights the power and importance of love.
Fischer describes three main components of this system: one is responsible for attachment, another for strong romantic feelings, and the third for sexual attraction. Attachment is formed by oxytocin, a hormone that plays a role in pair formation.
"In a good marriage, you constantly hug, kiss, massage each other, listen to each other's voice - this is how oxytocin is produced," Helen explains. nine0005
In addition to forming attachment, this hormone also reduces the level of cortisol, the stress hormone. Romantic feelings release dopamine, a chemical messenger that plays an important role in the pleasure center.
The release of dopamine also activates sex, and orgasm sends a large amount of oxytocin into the blood.
"For men, regular sex activates the release of testosterone, which makes you feel good," Fisher says.
Given all of the above, after losing a partner, you will most likely be devastated and exhausted. In such a situation, all three systems usually cease to function.