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Heartache from dog theft is as intense as losing a loved one

Imagine the despair of experiencing dog theft, where a beloved pet is not lost to natural causes but taken forcefully.

Recent research highlights the profound emotional pain endured by dog owners when their pets are stolen, a sorrow comparable to the loss parents feel when their children are tragically taken from them.

Exploring the deep emotional bonds

The study explores the deep emotional connections between humans and their canine companions, akin to familial bonds.

Owners express feelings of intense grief after dog theft – often surpassing the sadness they feel after the death of a friend or relative. This heightened intensity largely stems from the unique closeness they share with their pets, a bond not always present in human relationships.

Akaanksha Venkatramanan from Berkshire Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust and Dr. Lindsey Roberts from the University of the West of England explored the specific emotional reactions to dog theft.

The researchers note that dog owners commonly experience sadness, despair, emotional numbness, and anxiety – responses similar to those observed following the death of a human loved one. Yet, these emotions stand out due to societal attitudes towards the death of animals versus humans.

Validating the grief of dog-theft victims

“Pet ‘ownership’ is empirically evidenced to improve mental and physical health, with research suggesting an anthropomorphic bond between ‘owners’ and dogs that equal familial relationships, including children,” wrote the study authors.

“However, bereavement of dogs, and especially dog-theft, garner scarce interest, leaving a huge population to suffer disenfranchised grief unsupported.”

“This study aims to validate the overlap of emotional value in familial and ‘owner’-dog relationships, and grief between dog-theft victims and those with missing loved ones.” 

“The study explores the needs of guardians suffering ambiguous loss, how they cope with it, and the role of social media in this process, to grow existing literature on the topic and guide psychological support resources.” 

Societal views and lack of support

Societal misunderstandings about the value of animal companions often exacerbate the distress owners feel when they lose a pet. Additionally, current dog theft laws, which treat pets merely as property, intensify owners’ feelings of helplessness and injustice.

The absence of adequate legal and police support further amplifies the grief, as does the traumatic nature of the thefts, which often involve forceful or deceitful removal from the owners’ property.

Coping with dog theft

Despite these challenges, dog owners try to cope as if dealing with the disappearance or death of a human loved one. Some turn to social media to continue searching for their pets, seek support from others in similar situations, and try to retain hope amidst their anguish, noted the study authors.

These coping mechanisms, while helpful, do not fully mitigate the risks of developing long-term psychological issues such as post traumatic stress disorder and post grief disorder, especially when closure is unattainable.

The researchers advocate for more focused psychological research to develop resources that can better support grieving pet owners. Such efforts could inform best practices for managing grief and the broader psychological impacts of pet theft.

The rising threat of dog theft

The value of pet ownership goes beyond companionship, with studies linking it to improved physical and mental health outcomes.

During the COVID-19 lockdowns, dogs played a crucial role in mitigating the effects of isolation by providing reasons for their owners to engage in outdoor activities.

However, the increased demand for dogs during this period also led to a significant rise in dog theft, highlighting a dark side to their popularity.

The researchers and their colleagues, including Dr. Dan Allen of Keele University, are pushing for substantial changes in how dog theft is treated legally and socially.

Their ongoing research and advocacy efforts aim to transform how these crimes are viewed and handled, pushing for recognition of the deep emotional bonds between humans and animals and stronger penalties for those who disrupt them.

As this body of research grows, the goal is to not only provide solace and support to those affected, but also to spur legal reforms that will better protect our beloved pets from theft and their owners from the profound grief it causes.

The study is published in the journal Human-Animal Interactions.


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