Crying is quite a different act for dogs. There are different ways in which we can consider them to be crying. And those different forms of crying indicate different things. This is the science of dog tears. Let’s go.
What do dog tears mean?
Before we answer “can dogs cry?” we have to rephrase the question: “can dogs cry tears?” And the answer is: Yes. But if the question is: “can dogs cry tears of sadness?” then the answer is: No.
Human beings are the only animals that weep for emotional reasons. If you see tears coming from your dog’s eyes, they are purely functional. Dog weeping is called epiphora, and it is a medical thing. Your dog might cry tears for hereditary reasons. Retrievers, pugs, and cocker spaniels are among those that tend to suffer in this way. Or it might indicate a newly-developed illness.
Dogs actually have a third eyelid that improves but complicates their lubrication system somewhat. When things go wrong, he may tear up in a reaction intended to wash his eye. It could be that he has an eyelid problem, or an eyelash caught on his eyeball. Or it could be the onset of a doggy-eye issue such as cherry eye.
Finally, the medical problem could be a conjunctiva or sinus infection, or even an allergy. If you notice your dog is crying tears, his eyes are bulging, or he has other discharge or sores on his eyes, you should take him to see his vet.
Your vet needs to deal with this as soon as possible to prevent things to get worse, and to soothe your dog’s suffering in the short-term. She might use x-rays or medical dyes to see what’s going on.
So what do dogs do when they’re sad?
A dog won’t weep from sadness, but he does have his ways of communicating that he’s sad. Some of these might be described as ‘crying,’ but that’s due to the sound rather than the shedding of tears.
One such sound is more properly thought of as howling. This is actually your dog’s method of long-distance communication, since other dogs can hear it from a greater distance than barking or growling. It is your dog’s bat signal, used to summon the pack back together. So it doesn’t necessarily mean he’s sad.
A dog might howl because he senses danger, or wants to locate another member of his pack (whether canine or human!). You may have heard dogs howling along to music. Sometimes when a dog hears singing, he mistakes it for howling and joins in out of solidarity. But sometimes, dog howling can be equated with crying. If your dog is lonely or distressed, he may howl for attention. Not strictly because he’s sad, but… it’s still worth considering his feelings if he makes a noise in this way.
Another crying sound that your dog makes is more of a whimper. Again, this sound can indicate different things. In terms of sadness, it’s more like a sound of distress. Your dog may whimper to indicate that he is physically hurt, or anxious. He expects you to make a sound back to acknowledge him. ‘There-there’ should do it! Whimpering can also indicate a positive emotion. Dogs sometimes whimper when they’re excited and happy to see you. Which is pretty lovely.
Slightly different to whimpering is whining. This can be a high-pitched nasal sound with his mouth closed. It often indicates some level of frustration, for example if your dog is hoping to be allowed outside to use the bathroom. Or it could happen because he’s distressed at being separated from his friends or family.
What to do about excessive crying
If your dog weeps tears, you need to take him to his vet as it indicates a medical condition. But if your dog cries vocally because he’s sad or distressed, there are steps you can take at home. The best thing is to build his confidence by loving him, playing with him, and socialising him with other dogs and people. Never punish your dog, as it is just confusing for him. If these steps don’t work, it is best to consult your vet – who may recommend a behaviourist.
Dogs don’t cry because they’re sad, but they do have a whole lot of feelings going on. Get to know your dog’s way of communicating, give him the love he needs, and you can keep that crying to a minimum.