Even dogs are devastated by grief: this is how they cope with the loss of their companion

Szénási Szimonetta

2024. February 24 - Photos: Getty Images Hungary

The loss of a loved one is a great pain, for us as well as for our pets. Here's how they overcome the difficulties.


Grief does not spare dogs, which has been proven in a study. Just as in humans, there are various behavioural changes in dogs following the loss of a four-legged companion.

Grief does not spare dogs.

As we have written before, for a dog, the loss of its owner is a huge pain. A team of researchers at the University of Milan investigated whether the departure of another dog had an effect on them.

It is not clear whether the process can be called mourning in the sense that humans mourn (i.e. understanding that death is the end of life). However, it certainly has a negative impact on the animal’s daily life. This needs to be countered by helping the dog to cope.

Dogs are highly emotional animals that form very close bonds with members of the familiar group. This means that it can be very distressing for them if one of them dies, and steps need to be taken to help them cope with this distress.

– stressed Dr Federica Pirrone, one of the authors of the study.

The procedure of the research

Pirrone and colleagues conducted their study with a total of 426 people, with each participant completing a so-called “bereavement questionnaire”. Each of them has lost a dog in their lifetime, while keeping at least one other four-legged friend with them. The researchers wanted to find out how the owner and the other dog experienced the death of their partner. Questions were asked about both behaviour and emotions experienced.

It turns out that 86% of respondents had experienced a behavioural change in their other dog.

In summary, the dogs reportedly played and ate less, slept more and sought more attention from their owners after losing their companion.

– highlighted Dr Pirrone. She added that the results showed that this was not influenced by the quality of the relationship between the dog and the owner.  Whether the person had humanised the dog, i.e. whether there was a possibility that they had projected their own grief onto the animal was not a facto either. In addition, the research team found that the changes that occurred were not related to how long the two dogs had lived together or whether the survivor had seen the lifeless body of its partner.

Rituals and the mourning process

Observations so far suggest that, in addition to humans, apes, dolphins, elephants and birds also participate in death rituals and appear to mourn.

Changed routine

According to the researchers, there are several possible explanations for the findings. This includes that death may have disrupted the collective behaviour of the surviving dogs.

In support of this hypothesis, we found that if dogs shared food during their lifetime, the surviving dog was more likely to spend less time doing this activity (eating – editor) and to sleep more after the loss.

– they explained.

Losing a friend or relative is more painful

The results showed that dogs were more affected by grief if the deceased companion was a friend or a relative. “This probably means that the surviving dog has lost an attachment figure who provided security and protection.” – said Dr Pirrone.

Human emotions also play a role

The results of the study also showed that the emotional response of the owner affected the dog’s emotional response. As the researchers point out, this kind of social transmission is typical of social species.

Dr Pirrone says that this is why the definition of grief is as ambiguous for dogs as it is for young children. Moreover, as he says, it is not possible to say with certainty whether they are reacting to death or to a change in their lives in the ways described above. What is certain, however, is that the departure of a dog companion will make a difference.

There are gaps

Prof Samantha Hurn, a social anthropologist at the University of Exeter, said it was important to understand what a dog might be going through when a canine companion dies. However, she added that the study had limitations. One reason is the fact that owners are not always good at reading dog behaviour. The use of questionnaires with scales on such a subjective issue can also limit the conclusions that can be drawn.

He said, “In my own research, I have studied many dogs and other animals who, although in very different ways, behaved in ways that suggested to me that they were emotionally affected by the death of a close companion”.

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