An overwhelming majority of dog owners noticed negative changes in their surviving pet following the death of a family dog.
By George Dvorsky
Reposted from: https://gizmodo.com/
The death of a dog can be devastating for families, but new evidence from Italy suggests surviving dogs can also be profoundly affected by the loss, resulting in an assortment of behavioral changes that scientists say are consistent with grieving.
That dogs are capable of grieving may seem obvious to many dog owners, particularly those who have witnessed this very thing—myself included. Indeed, anecdotal accounts of dogs mourning the loss of a companion are common, but knowing the true emotional state of dogs is not easy and we often run the risk of anthropomorphizing our pets.
The new research, published in Scientific Reports and authored by an international group of scientists, tests our instincts on this matter, finding that dogs do indeed exhibit behaviors consistent with mourning. But as the researchers themselves admit, whether this is actual grieving remains an open question.
That said, the paper, co-authored by psychologist Stefania Uccheddu from the University of Padua, suggests we need to be sensitive to the needs of mourning dogs, and that we devise and employ effective strategies to comfort our canines as they adjust to the newly created void in their lives.
For the study, researchers from the University of Milan and several other institutions surveyed 426 dog owners in Italy, asking them to document changes in their dogs following the death of another dog in the same household. A whopping 86% of respondents reported negative changes in their surviving dog, an array of altered behaviors that—at least superficially—resemble signs of grief. The result is not a complete surprise as many animals exhibit mourning-like behaviors, including chimps, elephants, birds, and killer whales.
All respondents had a dog that passed away while they owned at least one other dog, and 66% lost their dog at least one year prior to filling out the survey. The researchers asked the owners to document changes in their surviving dog’s behavior after the death, and to also describe their prior relationship with the dogs and how they themselves dealt with the death of their pet. Of the dogs studied, 93% lived together with another dog for more than one year, while nearly 70% of owners described the relationship with their dogs as being friendly (which, at least to me, seems low—but that’s probably another story worth pursuing).
“Dog owners reported several statistically significant changes in the surviving dog after the death of the companion dog,” the scientists write. Approximately one-third of owners said these changes lasted for between two to six months, while one-quarter said it lasted for longer than half a year. In terms of the altered behaviors, 67% of dogs became more attention-seeking, 57% played less, 46% were less active, 35% slept more and were more fearful than before, 32% ate less, and 30% exhibited more whining or barking. Interestingly, the amount of time the dogs spent together had no effect on the results, according to the study.
In relationships deemed friendly, “the surviving dog was significantly more likely (1.3 times) to play less and to eat more or similar after the death event,” according to the paper. Interestingly, emotional eating has previously been reported in dogs, and it tends to happen more when the dog loses a parent or offspring.
Acquiring these results was a fairly straightforward process—it’s the interpretation of this data that’s the bigger challenge. Can it truly be said that these altered behaviors are signs of grief?
An obvious shortcoming of the paper is that all the results came from self-reported surveys. It’s wholly possible that the owners are misconstruing the behaviors of their surviving dogs, and/or are projecting their own feelings onto their pets, as they themselves are still feeling the effects of the loss. The researchers considered this, but they believe it’s unlikely.
“Surprisingly,” the scientists write, “the owner’s vision of life, humanisation of pets and the view of animals and humans as being on the same continuum … did not correlate with any reported canine behavioural changes occurring after the [companion] died.” The researchers say this is “important because it indicates that the owner is not simply projecting grief on their dog based on their own sentiments; the reported changes are thus more likely to be real.”
Personally, I’m not sold on this interpretation, and I believe the projection of grief should be accounted for. It’s likely not the whole story, but certainly part of the conversation in my opinion. A future study should seek more objective ways of collecting data. It’s also important to consider that the altered, and potentially negative, behaviors of grieving dog owners could be the reason for some of the observed changes in the dogs. As many a dog owner will attest, canines are excellent at picking up on the emotional cues of humans, and they often feed off it, sometimes to detrimental effect.
Another possible explanation for the altered behavior is the sudden disruption of the surviving dog’s routine. As the authors write: “Social animals have a strong tendency to co-operate and synchronise their behaviour, and this happens in domestic dogs as well.” This helps to maintain group cohesion, and it allows animals “to get the benefits of social living, and may be disrupted in the case of a death in the group,” as the paper points out. Strong bonds between dogs can result in integrated routines, “which may explain the changes observed after the death event in the behaviours of surviving dogs,” the scientists say.
It’s also possible that dogs truly have the capacity for attachment, and that the “loss of a conspecific,” as the researchers coldly describe it, “can be considered an interruption of the attachment bond” and an explanation for the observed behaviors. In other words, grief. Or at the very least, separation stress after loss.
If that’s the case, it means we’ve potentially ignored a major welfare issue, as many dogs live with a companion canine. Accordingly, the researchers say it’s important that we gain a better understanding of these behavioral patterns if we’re to truly recognize the emotional needs of dogs.
“However, even if we recognise the importance of these results, we still cannot confirm it was grief,” the scientists conclude. “More research is clearly needed.”
On a Lighter note:
Please share your thoughts by commenting below.
My name is Kimberli. I’d like to share with you about my son Aidan and his special relationship with animals, especially a dog named Lily.
When Aidan was nine he was diagnosed with a mood dysregulation disorder, along with anxiety and depression. Up until 4th grade, Aidan enjoyed the friendship of two young boys. But, eventually the boys found it hard to handle the stress of Aidan’s erratic emotional shifts so those friendships dissolved. One moved away when his family relocated and the other moved to a different school. The loss of his best friends was devastating for Aidan and left him very lonely, especially at school. It still breaks my heart.
Aidan has always had a natural connection with animals. He’s very loving, kind and compassionate with animals of all kinds. During hurricane Harvey, a local dog rescue was collecting leashes to be used for rescuing dogs that were victims of the hurricane, so we gathered some leashes and brought Aidan to the rescue to drop them off. That ignited a spark in Aidan and he donated all his allowance money ($60!) to the rescue for which they in turn named a dog “Aidan” after him to honor his generosity. He also started volunteering with the rescue to walk the dogs there. For Aidan, this was the highlight of each week. He and I would typically walk dogs about three times a week. Then, the rescue made a decision to discontinue the volunteer dog walking after a volunteer accidentally let go of a leash and a dog escaped. Luckily, that dog was found safe. This was another devastating blow for Aidan. The dog walking was something he looked forward to and not only did he get to connect with animals, but it got him exercising which helped with his anxiety and depression.
I started to think of other solutions and decided to reach out to neighbors who had dogs to see if they would hire Aidan to walk their dogs. This is how we connected with our neighbor Barbara. Barbara had a poodle mix named Lily who was in her last phase of life and Barbara thought Aidan should walk her. A beautiful friendship began between the Aidan & Lily … and between Barbara and our family.
Barbara credits Aidan for breathing new life into Lily. Every time Lily seemed to be near death, Aidan would visit her and she would perk up. There were times when Lily was really sick and Barbara needed Aidan’s help giving her medication or fluids and Aidan would run over immediately to help comfort Lily—and Barbara. The pandemic made dog walking tricky, but Aidan continued to walk Lily until she eventually passed away in June 2020. Lily wound up living a few years longer than anyone had expected she would.
The relationship Aidan had with Barbara and her two other dogs continued. Aidan started walking one of her male dogs named River. It wasn’t the same connection, but it was still nice for Aidan to have the opportunity and it was nice to continue to visit with Barbara since Barbara had developed a real love for Aidan, as Lily once had. Walking River gave Barbara an opportunity to continue seeing Aidan and vice versa. And it gave Barbara and me a chance to catch up and commiserate about the pandemic. We became close friends and also started grocery shopping for each other during Covid. To this day we still help each other with grocery shopping and we talk/text almost every day. I also continue to walk River at least once a week.
Unfortunately, the pandemic was extremely hard on Aidan. The isolation compounded his depression and anxiety so he was not able to regulate his emotions. We enrolled him in a wilderness therapy program in the summer of 2021 and, following that, placed him in a residential therapeutic school immediately. Luckily the school has cats, horses and some of the therapists have dogs they bring in so Aidan can get his animal fix, but his connection with Lily was really quite special and will always be treasured … and connected us with Barbara for life.
P.S. There’s more to this story. Aidan has become my Special Technical Advisor! I’m in the process of writing a dog rescue story for children and Aidan is reviewing my manuscript to make sure the dialogue is hip and in step with the way kids talk these days.
You Can Pick Your Family!
Father knows Best
Walter Stoffel is a substance abuse counselor and GED teacher in correctional facilities. When not behind bars, he likes to read, travel, work out and watch bad movies. Major accomplishment : He entered a 26.2-mile marathon following hip replacement surgery and finished—dead last. The author currently lives with his wife Clara, their dog Buddy (another rescue), and cat Winky (yet another rescue).