While the death of a pet can be devastating for its owners, recent study reveals that it may be as so for other animals in the same home. The study, which was published in the journal Scientific Reports, suggests that behavioral and emotional changes in dogs following the death of another dog from the same household might be interpreted as grieving.
Elephants, giant apes, and birds have all been observed to be in mourning mode. Whales and certain primates, for example, have been spotted moving the bodies of deceased relatives in what the research authors refer to as “death rituals.” Similar behavior has been seen in wild dogs, albeit it is uncommon. The burial of newborn pups by wild wolves has been documented in case studies, and the handling of a deceased dingo pup by its mother and littermates has also been documented.
The researchers examined 426 Italians who had had at least two dogs, one of whom had died while the other was still living, to see if domesticated dogs are capable of grief. The researchers collected data on the behavioral and emotional responses of both pets and their owners to the death of a four-legged buddy using a tool called the Mourning Dog Questionnaire.
Overall, 86 percent of owners indicated that the surviving dog’s behavior had deteriorated. When asked for further information, around two-thirds of respondents claimed their dog became more attention-seeking, while 57 percent indicated their dog became less lively. In 35 percent of grieving pets, there was an increase in fearfulness and a tendency to sleep more, as well as a 30 percent reduction in food consumption.
Around a third of owners said the alterations lasted two to six months, while a quarter said they lasted longer. A detailed examination of the data found that dogs that had a pleasant connection with the dead pet were 30 percent more likely to participate in “emotional eating,” whereas dogs who had lost a parent or children were more likely to engage in decreased eating. Behavioral abnormalities were also more common in dogs that had shared food with the deceased companion, presumably indicating how pack animals prefer to coordinate their routines with other members of their group and are therefore prone to lose their path when conspecifics die.
The scientists also found that “the amount of dread in the surviving dog was strongly connected with the level of sorrow, rage, and psychological stress experienced by the owners,” and that canines that were grieving ate less. They believe this is due to “emotional contagion,” in which dogs catch up on and adopt their masters’ moods.
The researchers propose that an owner’s displeasure may merely generate fear insecurity in a dog as an alternate reason. Regardless of the underlying causes, they conclude that “when a close conspecific dies, a dog may exhibit grief-related behavioral and emotional patterns, with portions of the latter perhaps tied to the owner’s emotional condition.” They conclude by saying that “even if we understand the value of these data, we still cannot confirm it was grieving,” a warning against the inclination to anthropomorphize dogs.
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