We Knew It All Along: Study suggests pets grieve

Although it is clear to most of us that our pets do in fact grieve when they lose companions, both human and animal, there has been no 'study' to confirm what we believe.

It would be difficult to measure how sad any pet would be, but we can see behaviors and attitudes that make it pretty clear that many of our pets suffer a tremendous impact  associated with loss. As our awareness of our shared natures becomes more evident, research about attachment and loss can begin to look more critically at what we know in real life. 

Supported by funding from the  Morris Animal Foundation (www.morrisanimalfoundation.org), a survey was sent to 279  veterinary clinics and animal rescue and advocacy organizations in  Australia and New Zealand. They were asked to observe changes in the animals behavior after the loss of a companion animal.

 The two most common classes of behavioral change reported through the questionnaire were in affection behaviors and territory behaviors.

Both dogs and cats were reported to demand more attention from their owners and/or display affiliative behavior, as well as spend time seeking out the deceased pet’s favorite spot,”

 The study, titled “Owners’ perceptions of their animal’s behavioural response to the loss of an animal companion, which appeared Nov. 3, 2016, in the online, open-access journal Animals.

  • Dogs were reported to have decreased the amount of food and speed at which they ate, and to have increased the amount of time spent sleeping.
  • Cats were reported to have increased the frequency and volume of their vocalizations.

Researchers also looked at the practice of giving the surviving pet the opportunity to see the deceased pet’s body. The survey found no difference in behavioral responses between animals that saw the deceased pet and those that did not.

A Few Caveats

Authors of the study noted that there were limitations to interpretations of the study, particularly given the potential for anthropomorphism and owner bias, and that further investigations independent of owner interpretation are required.

Clearly more research will shed additional light on the nature of those changes in behavior; what some of the causes may be and what approaches may be be most effective. There are many other factors that may influence how your pet reacts to losing someone, including reacting to the feelings of their human companion and their own sense of loss.