It's well-known that dogs form strong emotional bonds with members of their human family, and often suffer grief when a loved one dies or moves away. However, one might wonder if dogs suffer an equal sense of loss when an animal companion who has lived with them in the same home suddenly disappears.
I recently visited the home of some friends who have always had Boston Terriers as their companion dogs, usually in pairs, and always in the traditional black and white coloration. Quite often, they also had a cat as a pet, which was usually black-and-white to match the dogs. I always felt that it was Violet's work as an interior decorator that compelled her to have color-coordinated pets. On this visit, I found only one dog in the house. Lou explained that in the course of a few months they had lost one of their Boston Terriers (Lily) and shortly thereafter their cat (Rosie). Lou went on to say, "Now we only have Daisy. She took the loss of Lily and Rosie pretty hard, so we are looking to get a puppy companion for her as soon as possible."
I sat down on the sofa where Violet was sitting with Daisy. She said:
"Daisy was really upset when Lily passed. She kept checking the places where Lily usually took her naps, and when she didn't find her she would whine or whimper. She also got really clingy and demanded a lot of affection from me. Things got better after a month or so but then Rosie, our cat, died. I was surprised to find that Daisy showed the same kinds of behaviors when she couldn't find Rosie. Daisy kept looking for her in her usual spots, began whimpering again, and seemed to want to be close to me. She even stopped eating as enthusiastically as she usually did, as though she had lost part of her appetite."
Although Daisy's behavior at the loss of her canine companion was familiar to me, I was a bit surprised to learn she showed signs of grief at the loss of the cat as well. However, a recent study published in the journal Animals attempts to catalog the behaviors of dogs and cats when they suffer the loss of an animal housemate, and what the study found suggests that Daisy's behavior is not atypical. The study was conducted by a team of researchers headed by Jessica Walker of the New Zealand Companion Animal Counsel who collected data pertaining to 159 dogs and 152 cats. The data consisted of questionnaire responses from pet owners in New Zealand and Australia who owned multiple pets at the same time and had lost one within the past five years. The pet owners were asked to recall how the surviving pet responded to the disappearance of their companion.
One of the most common behaviors observed in dogs was to continually check the places where their lost housemate normally napped or rested. This behavior was found in 60 percent of the dogs (regardless of whether the lost companion was a dog or a cat) and 63 percent of the cats. Virtually the same proportion of surviving pets demanded more affection or became clingy and needy (61 percent of dogs and 62 percent of cats). Increases in whining and whimpering was less frequent, occurring 27 percent of the time in dogs. However, increased vocalizing was much more common in cats (43 percent). Roughly one in three dogs and cats reduced the amount of food they ate and the speed in which they ate it (35 percent in dogs and 31 percent in cats). Dogs were more likely to increase the amount of time that they spent sleeping (34 percent), which was less likely in cats (20 percent). The interesting thing is that these are all behaviors one might observe in a young human child experiencing grief and stress because of the loss of a human family member.
Two aspects of this data surprised me. The first is that the cats seem to show grief-like behaviors to the same extent as the dogs. The second is that the dogs seem to show an equal amount of grief-related behavioral changes when the animal companion they lost was a cat rather than another dog.
One particularly interesting finding is that some animal behaviorists believe that the grief response in dogs can be reduced if the animal has a chance to view their deceased companion's body. The idea is that this provides closure: The dog will understand that their companion is no longer alive and is not coming back. In the study, 58 percent of the dogs and 42 percent of the cats got to view the body of their companion. The majority (73 percent) took the time to sniff and investigate their deceased housemate. However, no one reported behavioral differences between the animals that saw, and those that did not see, a dead companion's body. This seems to confirm that dogs act very much like human children younger than four, in that they do not have a concept of death as a final and irrevocable separation. Instead, they simply feel the loss of the presence, friendship, and companionship of their loved one; that loss causes their stress and grief-like behaviors.
The conclusion to draw from this study is that dogs and cats suffer from stress when a companion animal from their household dies. Because of this, they show behaviors which can be interpreted as grief. Further, a dog is just as likely to grieve over the loss of the household cat as it is for the loss of a companion dog.
Stanley Coren is the author of books including Gods, Ghosts and Black Dogs; The Wisdom of Dogs; Do Dogs Dream? Born to Bark; The Modern Dog; Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History; How Dogs Think; How To Speak Dog; Why We Love the Dogs We Do; What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs; Why Does My Dog Act That Way? Understanding Dogs for Dummies; Sleep Thieves; and The Left-hander Syndrome.
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Jessica K. Walker, Natalie K. Waran and Clive J. C. Phillips (2016). Owners' perceptions of their animal's behavioural response to the loss of an animal companion. Animals, 6, 68; doi:10.3390/ani6110068