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Dogs can grieve when they lose a canine buddy

Grieving behavior has been reported in a variety of animals, including elephants, chimpanzees and birds, but it has remained unclear whether domestic dogs grieve after the death of another dog in the family. Studies have remained inconclusive as it is difficult to identify the exact cause of behavior considered to indicate mourning.

A new survey of 426 dog owners in Italy has found that dogs show behavioral and emotional changes after the death of a conspecific in the household, indicating that they may experience grief. The survey included adults whose pet dog had died while there remained at least one other dog in the family. 

The participants, 66 percent of whom had lost their dog over one year before the study, were asked about the ways in which the surviving dog’s behavior changed in the time immediately following the death. They were also asked to assess their own levels of distress after the bereavement.

Negative changes in the behavior of the surviving dog were reported by 86 percent of the dog owners in the survey. These changes were reported to last between two and six months in 32 percent of the cases, and for more than six months in 25 percent of the cases.

Owners reported that, after the death of a pet, the surviving dog sought attention more frequently (67 percent of cases), played less (57 percent), and became less active (46 percent). Thirty-five percent of owners noted that their remaining dog slept more and became more fearful after losing a canine companion. In 32 percent of cases, bereaved dogs ate less, while 30 percent of owners reported more frequent whining or barking in the surviving dog. 

The findings, published today in the journal Scientific Reports, showed that 93 percent of dog owners in the survey responded that their dogs had lived together for longer than one year at the time of the death. Sixty-nine percent of dog owners stated that their dogs had a friendly relationship with each other before the time that one of them died. 

The analysis showed that, while the length of time that the dogs had lived together did not influence the surviving dog’s behavior, having a friendly relationship with the deceased dog did. In addition, the grief of the owner had an influence on the extent of negative behavior and fearfulness in the remaining dog.

According to the researchers, the negative behavioral and emotional changes observed in the surviving dogs after their conspecific passed on could be seen as both a grief-like reaction and a response by the surviving dog to the grieving behavior of the owner. The authors conclude that grief-like responses among dogs are potentially a major pet welfare issue that has been overlooked.

By Alison Bosman, Staff Writer

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