Parenting a pet, no matter what kind, can be a frustrating and bewildering experience. Animals can’t tell you what they want and need (directly, at least), so we’re here to help you answer any questions you have about your favorite companion — whether they be furry, slimy, feathered, scaly or anything in between — with insight from the experts. This is “Basic Bitch,” an advice column for pet parents who just want the best for their best friend.
The Very Basic Concern
My dog loves me more than anything. He quite literally jumps with joy when I get home, he follows me around everywhere, even into the bathroom, and he occasionally “shares” his toys with me by placing them on my lap. Honestly, he’s the sweetest boy ever.
But the other night, I got to thinking about what my dog would do if I were to die an untimely death in the house. I obviously wouldn’t be alive to feed him, so, um, I imagined he might have to, well, eat my dead body. Needless to say, I can’t stop thinking about this, even though, complete disclosure, I’d totally want him to do it if he absolutely had to.
Basically: How quickly, theoretically speaking, would my starving dog eat my dead body?
The Expert Advice
Dawn Manker, trainer at Urbane Dog: I actually had this happen to a client of mine: They rescued a dog that ate their owner. They have severe problems with resources, because the dog obviously survived for a very long time — I think it was a week — without actually touching the owner. Then they realized, at a certain point, the dog went to the owner to survive, and it survived for much longer.
So the real answer is when the dog runs out of resources. It depends on where they are and what kinds of resources they have available before that becomes an option. You’d be surprised: They can get into trash cans and toilet bowls.
Carolyn Rando, forensic anthropologist: The timing of post-mortem feeding by pets does vary quite a bit. It also depends on whether you mean full consumption of the body or just a few nibbles. It can happen quite quickly after death, especially if the animal becomes distressed. In this case, the dog may go to the owner to look for comfort, and lick or bite in the process, which may stimulate the eating process.
This paper suggests that’s kinda what happened in their case study: The dog freaked when the owner killed himself, went to the now-dead owner for comfort, there was a lot of blood and the rest is obvious. It may be that a lot of this post-mortem “feeding” is often just the animals trying to go to their loved ones for comfort. Quite a lot of the marks made seem to be on the face, which is very different from the typical “animal scavenging” we see outdoors.
Julie Hecht, animal behavior researcher: I too have heard about the licking and biting theory of how dogs come to eat a deceased owner. I’d like to add that, when dogs lick, we don’t know if they’re doing so in an attempt to “help” their owners. Dogs lick for lots of different reasons in numerous contexts. For example, licking someone’s face in the morning, licking someone after they’ve gotten out of the shower or come back from a run. What’s notable is that the person’s smell and taste could differ in each of these contexts. The same thing can be said for a person’s smell and taste who’s now deceased, so dogs could lick as a way of obtaining information about the person and their changing state.
As for the speed of consumption, that’s a hard one: I’d want to factor in dog hunger, dog weight and whether the hungry dog could gain access to food within the house. I assume they’d go for that over their dead owner, but maybe not. It’s also worth considering the temperature in the house and the rate of decomposition.
Sam, EMT: I’ve never walked in on an already-dead body with dogs there. I’ve seen a few cardiac arrests, where the dog’s freaking out, but then we just put it in another room or outside. It’s hard to tell why the dog’s concerned when you don’t know it or how it reacts to other people. It could be just that all the commotion is worrying, but I’d imagine it’s worried for the owner when you’re pounding away at their chest.
At some point, the body will start to go rotten past the point of the dog wanting to eat it, and I know dogs can go a little longer than humans without eating. I’d guess around five to seven days would be the right time to dig in, as long as the human-meat is still fresh enough.