Do pets grieve?

Smudge the cocker spaniel was devastated when her companion, a King Charles spaniel called Charlie, died suddenly from a viral infection last August. The little dog’s head hung low and her droopy ears flopped on either side of her sorrowful eyes. “It seemed obvious to me that she was grieving,” says her owner Margaret Keane, a 51-year-old telecoms manager from Ashford, Kent.

But until recently, the idea that a dog would be devastated by the loss of a “loved one” would have been regarded as, at best, sentimental and, at worst, deluded. Experts agreed that it was unscientific to suggest animals experienced the same sort of complex emotions as humans. They had only basic or primal feelings, such as fear or anger.

Now, though, with increasingly sophisticated scans showing that humans form emotions in the parts of the brain we share with all mammals—and use the same neurotransmitter chemicals—vets and other experts are arguing that animal emotions must be similar to our own. Meanwhile, more and more behavioural studies seem to be backing them up. Neuroscientist Dr Jaak Panksepp of Washington State University, for instance, has observed that rats seem to experience joy while playing.

 

Do pets have human-like feelings?

So do pets like Smudge really feel human-like sorrow at the death of a friend? Marian Dawkins, professor of animal behaviour at the University of Oxford, is cautious. “It’s quite obvious that animals undergo physiological and behavioural changes after losing a social companion, offspring or parent, but are these accompanied by conscious experiences of suffering?” she asks. “In humans, there is conscious worry about the future, how someone is going to cope, whether they will be socially ostracised and other issues.”

But Dr karen Overall, a Pennsylvania animal behaviourist and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Veterinary Behavior, seems more sure. She believes that while the depth and exact nature of animal grief may as yet be poorly defined, there are “so many daily examples” of pets appearing deeply affected by the death of a companion that it’s very difficult to claim they don’t have the capacity to feel loss as keenly as we do.

Marc Bekoff, professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, has witnessed several examples of what he is certain was animal grief, including sea-lion mothers wailing pitifully as they watch their babies being eaten by killer whales, and Kenyan elephants that “seemed lost”, wandering around with their tails and trunks hanging limp, after the matriarch of the herd had died. He has also seen a female red fox bury her mate after it had been killed by a cougar. She carefully covered his body with pine needles and dirt and then stood silently over his grave, before moving on.

In fact, many experts now believe that not only should you take animal grief seriously, but you should also help your pet get over its loss, just as you would a family member or friend.

 

Coping with Pet Grief

Sometimes the solution may be simple. “You might just need to get a dog to take up new hobbies,” suggests Dr Overall. “It could enjoy taking walks in fresh locations or meeting new companions.”

“After a week of watching Smudge mope around, I took in a pup called Milly from a local animal rescue centre,” says Margaret Keane. “Smudge was hesitant at first, but after a few days she began to engage. Her sad expression lifted, her ears pricked up, and she began to play again.”

 

Profound Grief

Animal grief can be especially profound after the death of an owner with whom the pet has enjoyed a close relationship. Spot the collie went everywhere with Jake Anderson* —a farmer from Rostrevor, Northern Ireland—sitting with him in his tractor. When Jake died of a heart attack in October 2011, Spot spent the first week looking all over the farm for him. The collie was even seen standing at the farm gate, looking up and down the road, as if searching.

“Six months later,” says Jake’s son Mike*, “I drove my dad’s tractor home from the mechanic, where it had been for some time. When I opened the tractor door, Spot was right beside the step looking up yearning, seemingly hoping that my father was the driver.”

But here, too, new companionship can eventually bring consolation. Mike—who has three children under 12—has consistently encouraged Spot to carry on a normal life with his family. More than a year later, Spot still seems lost occasionally. But he has clearly found contentment with his new best friends.

Sometimes, though, an animal’s grief can cause just the sort of physical decline you see in humans. “For instance, when one cat in a household dies, the remaining cat can start to show problem behaviour,” says Sarah Heath of the Behaviour Referrals veterinary practice in Chester. “They may stop eating and grooming, or start seeking out their owner all the time.”

 

Routine and Distraction

One way for owners to help here is to try to keep a pet’s home routine as consistent as possible. “Distraction with new, interesting toys can be useful, too, but grief is a complex process and there are no simple trick solutions. Cats have a very different social system from dogs, so getting another cat isn’t recommended.”

Heath says that pheromone diffusers can bring comfort to cats and dogs. “They’re odourless artificial versions of soothing chemicals produced by the animals themselves and can be placed beside a pet’s bed. You can also get a collar impregnated with pheromones that are slowly released over a month.”

Dr Overall adds that grief can sometimes be “unremitting”—and if symptoms such as social withdrawal, loss of appetite or energy, or decrease in activity last more than a few weeks, then owners might like to consider asking a vet for animal antidepressants.

But even if your pet seems upset for a long time, there may be no need to worry. “Grief is a process that animals—like humans—often need to go through,” says Heath.

 

Giving your pet time and space

Gail Parker’s cat Rocky was very close to her Irish setter, Renny. A day or so after Renny died of cancer in June 2000, Gail put his collar around a life-sized model of an Irish setter.

“Rocky walked over to the statue, gently reached his paw up and patted the collar twice,” says the 67-year-old from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. “He then turned and walked slowly away with his head down.”

Rocky also used to sit on a table near a photo of Renny, reaching over with his paw to adjust it, so that it was facing him. “Even now, nearly 13 years later, I find Rocky sitting in the dining room, looking at the wooden cabinet where I keep Renny’s ashes, as if he’s meditating.”

But Rocky has never shown any other ill effects of his bereavement, and Gail sees his grief as normal. “He didn’t need treatment,” she says. “Just space and time to grieve for his friend.”

 

Witnessing the death of another animal

The most common experience of death for pets is euthanasia. There’s a strict rule that animals should never witness the slaughter of another in an abattoir, but what about when death is peaceful and bloodless, by injection? Many owners now feel that allowing a pet to witness a companion being put to sleep, or even just to view the body afterwards, may help with acceptance of the death, preventing the remaining animal pining because it doesn’t know why a housemate has disappeared.

Vets witnessing the behaviour of pets around euthanasia are often bemused at what happens. “They don’t behave the way that humans would in similar circumstances,” says Heath. “They remain interested in their companion until the moment of death, but after that, they may appear unconcerned, acting as if the body is as inanimate as furniture. This lack of reaction can seem at odds with the idea of feeling grief, but perhaps it’s just a reflection of a different attitude to life and death.”

 

Of course, pets don't always grieve

Some behave as if nothing has happened or even become more animated—as if relieved. “Animals may just be more honest about expressing their emotions,” says Dr Overall. “Sometimes, for whatever reason, they may not feel sad and, unlike humans, they don’t fake grief.”

But it’s clear that, though dogs and cats can’t cry, they can show their emotions in other ways, and if you think your pet is grieving, your intuition is probably correct. Give them space and time and, like most humans, they’ll eventually recover. Life may not ever be quite the same again, but the new “normal” will still be a life worth living.

* Names changed to protect privacy.

 

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