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 behavioural 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 behaviours 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 behaviours that — at least superficially — resemble signs of grief. The result is not a complete surprise as many animals exhibit mourning-like behaviours, 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 behaviour 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 behaviours, 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 behaviours 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 behaviours 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, behaviours 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 behaviour 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 behaviours. 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 behavioural patterns if we’re to truly recognise 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.”