Do Dogs and Cats Experience Grief?
It wasn’t all long ago when (believe it or not) most veterinarians and behavior experts said dogs and cats don’t experience grief, but instead are solely responding to change. Do our companion animals actually grieve?
Following a question from a reader concerned about her two geriatric dogs in hospice who are very closely bonded, and concerned about what will happen when the first succumbs.
There’s no question that other species do grieve, not surprisingly beginning with our closest relatives, gorilla and orangutan species as well as the bonobo and chimpanzee. Other primates (monkey species) also grieve. There are documented instances of various great apes refusing to eat, and launching into deep depression following a loss, usually of a baby – even starving themselves to death.
After a death, chimpanzees and bonobos and various species of monkeys sometimes gather as a group, outwardly vocalizing (as we may cry), and hug one another for up to an hour or more, as if at a funeral.
Chimpanzee and other primate species sometimes carry around a dead body of a young one for many days. Elephants have been known to do the same, carrying around young who succumb. Elephants will sometimes even hold burial ceremonies, actually burying a young elephant. And what’s more return to that place periodically for many years.
Following a loss, elephants emit vocalizations which can’t be described in any other way than profound distress, even if you don’t “speak elephant.” They also emit “special” low frequency level sounds below the range of human hearing. These low-frequency sounds, termed infrasounds, can travel several miles to communicate with other elephant family groups, and there are special sounds when there is a death, as if announcing an obituary.
In a Kenyan conservancy study, a female giraffe remained beside the body of her one-month-old calf for more than four days. Other females joined her and seemed to commiserate, wrapping their necks around one another in a sort of hug. Like human beings, the giraffes seemed to find comfort in connecting with one another in their shared emotions.
Parrot species are often monogamous throughout a season which they bring up their young, but not necessarily mating for life. However, some species – such as the Scarlett Macaws – do mate for life. Often when a parrot partner succumbs, the remaining parrot does appear to grieve, at least for a time.
Also, many bird species mate for life, including the mute swan, black vulture, whooping crane and albatross. Ornithologists suggests in many cases of a loss of one partner, the surviving bird loses “joy in life,” and eventually withers away.
If indeed species as far flung as a vulture to an elephant can experience grief, why not dogs and cats? We know today far more about brain chemistries of dogs and cats and how nearly identical they are to ours. What’s more dogs, in particular, evolved side by side with humans.
According to an Italian study, “Domestic dogs (Canis familiaris) grieve over the loss of a conspecific,” published in Scientific Reports, 2022 most dogs did express what the dog owners called “grief” (defined by changes in activities) after the loss of another household dog. Surprisingly, length of time the dogs were together didn’t seem to matter.
As little as 20 years ago, one scientist called it “anthropomorphism of the highest order” in a veterinary article under a brief passage about grief. Today, we know better, at least I hope so. And respect that while dogs and cats may respond differently than humans, it doesn’t mean they are not experiencing profound emotions. We now know that dogs and cats do have the neurotransmitter capability to do so. Also, do consider that not all humans express grief the same as there are cultural and most certainly individual differences.
Bottom line, what pet parents have been saying forever is true – dogs and cats, and for that matter pet parrots and potentially other species, can and do experience grief.