According to a survey, researchers found nearly 90 percent of dogs that experienced the death of another canine companion living in the same house showed signs of grief. In the months following their buddy’s death, dogs were less playful and more fearful. They also had reduced appetites and sought more attention from their owners, reports Clare Wilson for New Scientist.
Signs of mourning were stronger in dogs that had an amiable relationship and shared food with the deceased, reports the Guardian’s Nicola Davis. The study was published last week in Scientific Reports.
“Dogs are highly emotional animals who develop very close bonds with the members of the familiar group. This means that they may be highly distressed if one of them dies, and efforts should be made to help them cope with this distress,” says study author Federica Pirrone, an animal behavior expert at the University of Milan, told the Guardian.
Other animals that experience grief include dolphins, great apes, elephants, and birds. These species have been observed taking part in rituals around death and appear to mourn by touching and investigating the deceased individual’s corpse, the researchers write in the study. For example, mother elephants will stand guard over their still-born baby for days. They will also hang their head and ears, moving slowly and quietly in a depressed-like manner.
Despite reports of owners observing their pets grieiving, it wasn’t documented or studied in domesticated dogs until recently. For the study, researchers surveyed 426 adults who had at least two dogs and had experienced the loss of one of their dogs, per New Scientist. The study participants were asked to complete an online questionnaire about their surviving dog’s behaviors and emotions after their companion’s death, the Guardian reports. The participants were also asked about their own shifts in behavior and emotions.
About 86 percent of owners noted their surviving dogs had shown changes in their behavior after the death of a companion and the changes lasted between two to six months, reports Becky Ferreira for Vice. The living dogs were reported to play less, eat less, sleep more, and seek more attention from their owners. However, pets of owners who were affected by the pet’s death more were greatly affected by the event and we suggest that they could be reacting to their human’s behavior too, New Scientist reports.
“Dogs have become extremely sensitive to human communicative gestures and facial expressions,” says Pirrone to New Scientist. “A caregiver and a dog develop an emotional connection.”
While the dogs may have this way because they have lost an attachment figure who provided safety and security, the team can still not tell if the canines were responding to the death or the loss of an affiliate, Pirrone explained to the Guardian. Because the research relies on self-reported data, the study may have some limitations influenced by how owners interpreted their dogs’ behaviors, says social anthropologist Samantha Hurn from the University of Exeter, who was not involved with the study.
Pirrone and her team cross-referenced the reports to counteract any inconsistencies in the data and used statistical analysis to see if owners were really witnessing their pets in a grief-like state, Vice reports. Pirrone tells the Guardian that the attachment levels between the owner and the dog did not appear to affect results, so the data was not skewed by their owners projecting grief onto their pets.
The team concludes that while the data suggests that pets experience, more research is needed to confirm grief and mourning behaviors in dogs further, Vice reports.