The loss of a beloved canine companion is devastating, and new research shows that you might not be the only one feeling it. Any other dogs in your family could also go through mourning, as indicated by their behavior.
A survey of 426 multiple-dog owners in Italy revealed that, when one dog in the family dies, any others are more likely than not to display a distinct lack of doggy luster, as noticed by their humans. Although this might not be news to any people who are friends with dogs, the paper represents a step towards recognizing an aspect of animal care that has been underestimated.
“These findings indicate that a dog may show grief-related behavioral and emotional patterns when a close conspecific dies, with aspects of the latter possibly related to the owner’s emotional status,” a team led by veterinary scientist Federica Pirrone of the University of Milan writes in their paper.
If you’ve ever had a pet of any kind, you might be thinking that of course they have rich, deep emotional lives. However, the scientific exploration and documentation of these emotional lives is only relatively recent.
Grief in particular is interesting because it could tell us something about animal cognition, suggestive as it is of a subjective experience. And, in the case of pets, it can help us to better look after their emotional needs.
Grieving behaviors have been observed in a number of animals, including non-human primates, elephants, cetaceans (such as dolphins) and others. There is, however, very little in the scientific literature about grief in canids. It’s only been observed rarely in the wild, and there’s no documented evidence of grief in our domesticated friends.
So, Pirrone and her team set out to find some. They recruited 426 humans who lived with at least two dogs, and who had experienced the death of one of those dogs. These humans then were tasked with anonymously filling out a scientifically validated questionnaire about the behavior of their surviving dogs following their bereavement.
The humans also described the relationship between the dogs, and their own response to their pet’s death. The researchers also assessed whether the humans’ recollections of their pets’ responses were impacted by the diminishing memory of their own suffering during grief, to make as sure as possible that the memories of behavior were not likewise affected.
For the majority of dogs, behavioral changes were noticed by their humans following the loss of their doggy family members. Eight-six percent of the humans said that their dog’s behavior had become noticeably more subdued or needy.
The most common behavior, reported by 67 percent of these humans, was an uptick in seeking attention, followed by 57 percent reporting a decline in playing, and 46 percent reporting a decline in all activity from their surviving dog. More time spent sleeping, and more fearfulness, was reported by 35 percent of owners, 32 reported a decline in appetite, and 30 percent reported more whining or barking.
Of the grieving dogs, 93 percent had been living with their friends for longer than a year, and 69 percent had friendly relationships. Interestingly, the duration of time they had been living together had no influence in the behavior of the surviving dog.
However, the strength of the dogs’ relationship did have a correlation with the surviving dogs’ behavior, as did the emotions of the human. If the dogs had a friendly relationship, and the human was also grieving heavily, the surviving dog was more likely to show fearfulness, be less interested in activity, and seek more attention from their human.
But it’s not possible, based on this survey, to draw a strong conclusion and state definitively that dogs grieve the deaths of their friends, the researchers said. There are other factors that could influence the dogs’ behavior.
“Since human-dog bonding can have an effect on a dog’s perception of a dead conspecific [meaning another dog], it would be difficult attributing a specific pattern, if any, of exploration,” they write in their paper.
“Not only anthropomorphism may play a role in attributing a specific function to the dogs’ behavior, but attention to a deceased individual might also occur as a result of the owners’ increasing attention. Not surprisingly, an emotional contagion might also be considered, since stress seems contagious between dogs and owners. Our results might suggest that the dogs are responding to the ‘loss’ of an affiliate, more than their ‘death’ per se.”
Either way, it seems that the dogs are feeling something. If it means happier, healthier animal friends, further investigation into the way dogs respond to death seems very warranted, the researchers note.
The paper has been published in Scientific Reports.