Can Pets Die of a Broken Heart?

Published: November 07, 2017
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We’ve all heard the stories of couples who die within weeks, days, or sometimes even hours of one another. The cause is often cited as a broken heart. In fact, the phenomenon is common enough that it’s been scientifically studied and goes by the name the “widowhood effect.” But romantic couples aren’t the only ones who are affected. Think of the death of Debbie Reynolds who died just one day after the loss of her daughter, Carrie Fisher. The death of any loved one can produce the widowhood effect.

What about pets? We know that they grieve when they lose a close companion, but can they, too, die of a broken heart? Let’s look at what we know about the widowhood effect and if it might also apply to animals.

One recent study involving elderly, married couples shows that when a wife dies, men have an 18 percent increase in their risk of death, while the death of a husband results in a 16 percent increase for women. The most common causes of death in the second spouse included lung disease, diabetes, accidents, infections, and cancer.

In cases like these, the term “brokenhearted” is a bit of a misnomer. Most of these people didn’t literally die of grief-related damage to the heart, but, I suspect, due to some combination of the adverse effects of stress and perhaps a lessening of self-care. On the other hand, medical doctors do recognize a condition called takotsubo cardiomyopathy (also known as broken heart syndrome) that develops after sudden stressors like the death of a loved one, receiving bad news, intense fear, or even a surprise party. Scientists suspect that the sudden surge of adrenaline and other stress hormones causes changes within the heart that prevent part of it (specifically the left ventricle) from functioning normally. Takotsubo cardiomyopathy can usually be treated, but it is occasionally fatal in people.

How Grief Can Affect Your Pet’s Health

Grief is undoubtedly stressful for pets too, so it wouldn’t be surprising if it could have an adverse effect on their health, particularly if they were already dealing with a significant illness. Stress hormones can not only adversely affect the heart but also depress the immune system and reduce appetite, all of which could play a role in hastening a pet’s death.

In my many years in veterinary practice and as a pet owner, I’ve never suspected that the death of a pet was due to the loss of a beloved companion, but that certainly doesn’t mean it can’t happen. Keep in mind that the vast majority of people survive the loss of a loved one, but those stories just aren’t as newsworthy as are the ones involving people who die soon after one another. The same is probably true for our pets. Most will grieve but survive the loss a companion, but there are a few out there who may simply not be able to go on.

I leave you with the story of Liam and Theo, as reported by NBC News, as evidence that animals can, quite possibly, feel grief so deeply that it brings about their death:

Lance Cpl. Liam Tasker, a dog handler with the Royal Army Veterinary Corps, was killed in a firefight with insurgents in Helmand Province on March 1 [2011] as he searched for explosives with Theo, a bomb-sniffing springer spaniel mix. The dog suffered a fatal seizure hours later at a British army base, likely brought about by stress.

Military officials won't go so far as to say Theo died of a broken heart—but that may not be far from the truth.