Animal Grief

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“It's Arrogant To Think We're The Only Animals Who Mourn.”
- Marc Bekoff, Ph.D., Author, The Emotional Lives Of Animals

In 2009, Richard Gere starred in a movie adaptation of the story of Hachi, an Akita born in 1923. Hachi lived with Dr. Ueno, a professor at Tokyo University. Each morning, Hachi accompanied Dr. Ueno to the train station and, at the end of the day, returned to greet him. One day, Dr. Ueno had a stroke and died while teaching. For the next nine years, Hachi returned to the station awaiting his companion’s return. A bronze statue now sits where Hachi waited.

According to Barbara King, professor of anthropology at the College of William and Mary and author of How Animals Grieve, “almost no scientific research has been carried out on dog grief.” King hastens to acknowledge in the Prologue the skepticism and accusations of anthropomorphism to which she may be subjected by her scientific peers. Even so, King believes animals experience love and, therefore, grief.  

Animal love, according to King, is expressed by an animal going “out of her way to be near to, or positively interact with, the loved one, for reasons that may include but also go beyond such survival-based purposes as foraging, predator defense, mating and reproduction.” When that loved one dies and spending time together is no longer possible, “the animal who loves will suffer in some visible way.” This, argues King, is the quintessential marker of grief in animals.

Recognizing Grief

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animal (ASPCA) Companion Animal Mourning project estimates two-thirds of dogs exhibit loss of appetite, lethargy and/or anxiety behaviors such as pacing and excessive clinginess upon the death of another dog in the household. These behavioral issues may continue for up to six months.

In preparing to write this column, I made this general inquiry on Facebook: Have any of you been witness to a dog grieving either the loss of an animal or human companion? Within 20 minutes, I had as many responses, relating detailed heart-wrenching stories of companion animals’ profound expressions of grief that confirmed the ASPCA’s findings.

*Roxanne L. wrote, “Three years ago, I had two Pekinese dogs. Sadie died first. Bear quit eating, cried and eventually stopped barking. Within three weeks, Bear died of a broken heart.”

*Ellie K. wrote, “When we put down our old dog, Muffy, our puppy Oscar barely ate. My dad and I called it his hunger strike. After Muffy’s death, Oscar lost a lot of the puppy in him.”

  Just as with young children, even temporary separation can be challenging for our canine companions.

*Rachael M. shared that when they leave their dog, Sophie, with a sitter, Sophie whines and cries for days.

Finally, Holly Cheever, DVM, relayed a poignant story to me highlighting how little we know about the emotional and social bonds between animals - within and outside of their own species. Dr. Cheever maintains a sanctuary for abandoned and rescued farm animals. After the death of Parsley, a mini pygmy goat, one of the brown swift cows, Bridget, refused to eat for three days. Until then, Dr. Cheever had no idea the two animals were so close.

Responding with Compassion

Just as with grieving human beings, it is important to maintain a regular routine and exercise regime for dogs who have suffered a loss of another with whom they were bonded. In addition, enrichment toys and treats can be helpful in bringing joy back into a grieving dog’s life a little bit at a time. Spending time together - perhaps more than usual - playing and cuddling, is essential. Dogs are social pack animals. With domesticated dogs, their human companions are as much a part of the pack as other dogs.

In severe cases, the use of traditional and nontraditional medical interventions may be indicated. The ASPCA suggests the use of antidepressants - similar to those prescribed for canine separation anxiety and storm phobia. One friend, Lisa K., responded to my inquiry and shared her experience using acupuncture to assist her standard poodle, Windi, in her grief journey following the death of Sebastian, her closest canine companion in Lisa’s home.

*Windi had been raised in a houseful of standard poodles of all ages. Groomed to be a show dog, she spent much of her time in a kennel. She was shy and nervous, hating dog shows.

We took Seb to meet her, and he adored her instantly. She was wary, having seen dogs come and go for breeding, boarding, showing, etc. After a couple weeks she relaxed, and the two soon became bonded. Windi continued to be a troubled girl, especially in public, but at home it was obvious she felt secure with Seb. Windi learned to have fun.

Over the years, we brought two more dogs into the pack - Duncan and Race. Windi found her calling as their mother. She literally laughed out loud as she gently wrestled them with her mouth and paws.

Meanwhile Sebastian was aging poorly and had multiple surgeries for bladder stones. Halfway into his tenth year, he declined rapidly after being diagnosed with hemangiosarcoma, so we helped him over the rainbow bridge. Duncan and Race were very subdued for about a week, but Windi's reaction surprised us. She did not act depressed, but rather kept trying to rally the boys to play. She would do littles feints and growls to stir them, but they did not engage. This cheerful behavior seemed very odd, and I knew it was Windi's coping mechanism, but I was worried. We took the three remaining dogs to their monthly veterinary chiropractor appointment right after Seb died. Sue Ann Lesser, DVM, tenderly eased the pain of all the dogs through her healing chiropractic touch. But Windi was still agitated. Dr. Lesser used acupuncture to reach Windi's grief and quickly and dramatically draw it away. It was one of the most profound human-animal interactions I have ever witnessed. Windi improved, but never fully recovered from losing Sebastian. She reverted to anxiety and suspicion even around the house, and experienced mysterious abdominal pain. About a year later, we helped her over the bridge to join Sebastian. I know he is protecting her there.

From Death, Grief is Born

Despite the lack of scientific data to support canine grief, empirical evidence abounds. Dogs love and often develop deep emotional bonds with others with whom they share their lives. And despite how little we understand about animal grief, King maintains we do know one “simple truth that cuts across species lines: loved ones are irreplaceable.” Just as we mourn when a close friend dies, so, too, do they. From death, grief is born.

Ginny Mikata