Aging Animals: Their Behavior, Social Roles, and Lives

Elder animals are important in many social systems but they're often ignored

Posted Nov 15, 2013

A friend of mine recently sent me a beautiful and moving photo essay published by Isa Leshko capturing the "beauty and dignity of elderly animals" "in their winter years". As I looked at each of the pictures I remembered a wonderful, novel, and seminal book by the University of Waterloo biologist Anne Dagg called "The Social Behavior of Older Animals". This book is important because Professor Dagg summarizes the behavior of a cohort of individuals about whom very little is known in the wild.

Most discussions of elderly nonhuman animals (animals) are concerned with our companions, ranging from dogs, cats, horses, and various rodents to birds, lizards, fish, and other animals with whom people choose to share their homes and their lives. And, it's very common for people who share their homes and lives with other animals to have to make incredibly difficult end of life decisions, as discussed by Jessica Pierce in her book The Last Walk: Reflections on Our Pets at the End of Their Lives and in her essays for Psychology Today. Rarely do wild animals get the same sort of treatment. 

I'm sharing both of these resources with you because we really need to pay more attention to the ways in which animals age and also their role in social systems. Indeed, aging companion animals and others with whom people have more than casual contact often, and indeed should, influence the behavior of the people with whom they are living and likely change the social behavior of other nonhumans with whom they share their home. Stories abound about these changing social dynamics but there has been little systematic study of them. Detailed data would be most welcomed and most useful. 

Among wild animals, the importance of elderly matriarch elephants to elephant societies is legendary: they are the leaders of their herd and the "social glue" for maintaining group cohesion. When I had the most fortunate opportunity of watching wild elephants in the Samburu National Reserve in northern Kenya with renowned elephant expert Iain Douglas-Hamilton, I once saw a herd of elephants right after their matriarch died and it was very clear that something traumatic had happened. When I asked Iain about this he told me the matriarch had indeed recently died and that's why individuals seemed lost -- they wandered here and there and their grief was palpable even to me, a novice elephant watcher. 

The field is wide open for detailed comparative studies of the behavior, social roles, and lives of aging and elderly animals in the wild. The description of Anne Dagg's book is a very useful guide for what she covers and what needs to be done. "Synthesizing the available scientific research and anecdotal evidence, she explores how aging affects the lives and behavior of animals ranging from elk to elephants and gulls to gorillas, examining such topics as longevity; how others in a group view senior members in regard to leadership, wisdom, and teaching; mating success; interactions with mates and offspring; how aging affects dominance; changes in aggressive behavior and adaptability; and death and dying. At once instructive and compelling, this theme-spanning book reveals the complex nature of maturity in scores of social species and shows that animal behavior often displays the same diversity we find in ourselves."

I look forward to seeing the results of these most important studies for companion and wild animals. I am sure that we will also learn a lot about ourselves. 

Credit for the white turkey above: Ash, Domestic White Turkey, Age 8 II from Elderly Animals. Copyright Isa Leshko All Rights Reserved.

For a heartwarming book about senior dogs see Beautiful Old Dogs: A Loving Tribute to Our Senior Best Friends.