Do dogs and other animals feel pain and grief?
For decades, researchers have noted the mourning various animal species seem to experience when a family member dies. Elephants, for example, have been documented appearing to mourn the loss of a family member, whether an elderly matriarch or a stillborn calf. Chimpanzees and orcas have also been observed in mourning-like behavior.
What about pets?
As I write this, my husband and I are grieving the death of our beloved springer/cocker mix, Mary. We adopted her in 2013 when she was nearly seven years old. Although we didn’t spend her entire lifetime as her guardians and caregivers, Mary touched our hearts and lives in special ways. Sensitive, friendly, and kind, Mary was trained as a therapy dog, and her sweet disposition generated friends, both human and animal, during the years she lived with us. I wrote two children’s books about her, including A Kind Dog Named Mary, by which Mary reminds children that kindness is a great virtue. She exuded kindness and made impacts wherever she went.
That positive impact included the other pets in our house. From the aging Cody, who lived three extra years after Mary came to live with us, to puppy mill survivor Jeremiah, Mary was a true friend.
Now that Mary is gone, Jeremiah, especially, notices her absence. One day he didn’t eat at all. He is somewhat more lethargic, and he doesn’t play with his toys quite as much. He cuddles with my husband and I more. All of these are indicators, according to pet experts, that Jeremiah is mourning Mary’s death.
Well-known veterinarian Dr. Karen Shaw Becker states that dogs and cats “can experience sadness and grief at the loss of a beloved human or animal companion.” She cites the example of a military dog lying near the casket of its beloved human comrade (the television show, NCIS created an episode “Seek” which showcased a similar experience). Dr. Becker also states that behavior changes are common when pets grieve, so Jeremiah’s lack of appetite and desire for closer human companionship are not rare when a pet is mourning the loss of a beloved friend.
Before Mary, my husband and I had a blind springer spaniel named Sage. Like Mary, Sage developed cancer, and on the last night at home, as her breathing labored and her death drew closer, so, too, did the animals in our household. Cody, the cocker spaniel we’d adopted four years earlier, laid beside Sage in the living room. Our two cats also came into the room and stayed close by. They seemed to sense Sage’s near-demise and seemed to come to say goodbye to her. For several days thereafter, Cody seemed depressed. My husband and I took him on short drives and engaged in several walks a day. Keeping the surviving pets engaged and keeping a steady routine are highly recommended by pet experts after the passing of a beloved animal companion.
Perhaps you, too, have experienced the death of an animal companion – did you notice changes in the behavior of your surviving pets? Did they appear to mourn the loss? I’d be interested in hearing of your own experiences – feel free to leave a comment.
Getting another dog buddy is likely on the horizon, as Jeremiah probably needs another companion (as my husband and I). But, as many animal experts agree, doing so right away is not recommended. We will know when the time is right.
Meantime, we will share our grief as a family, and my husband and I will dote on the pets Mary left behind. Afterall, that’s what families do – help each other during difficult times.
Here are links to some articles on animal grief should you be interested:
Gayle M. Irwin is a writer and public relations professional who volunteers with various animal rescue groups. She enjoys sharing her books and her passion for pets and the environment with others.