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Does Your Dog or Cat Feel Grief When a Companion Animal Dies? Study Investigates That Question

The loss of a companion animal can be a difficult life event for pet owners, but the loss also may affect other animals in the household. A recent study of owner-reported observations indicates there are a number of common behavioral changes in dogs and cats after a companion animal in their home dies.

The study, funded with a grant from Morris Animal Foundation, surveyed 279 owners following the death of a pet. The questionnaire was distributed through veterinary clinics and several animal welfare organizations based in New Zealand and Australia. The two most common classes of behavioral change reported through the questionnaire were in affectionate behaviors and territorial behaviors.

“Both dogs and cats were reported to demand more attention from their owners and/or display affiliative behavior, as well as spend time seeking out the deceased pet’s favorite spot,” noted the study article that appeared in Animals 2016, 6(11).

Dogs were reported to decrease the amount and speed at which they ate, and increase the amount of time spent sleeping. Cats were reported to increase the frequency and volume of their vocalizations. Researchers also looked at the practice of giving the surviving pet the opportunity to see the deceased pet’s body. The survey found no difference in behavioral responses between animals that saw the deceased pet and those that did not.

Paper authors noted in their discussion that there were limitations to interpretations of the study, particularly given the potential for anthropomorphism (projecting human traits onto animals) and owner bias, and that further investigations independent of owner interpretation are required. New investigations might help to establish if the behavioral changes are a reflection of loss, a change in owner behavior following a loss, or of the reduction in competition for owner attention and resources.

This study was funded by Morris Animal Foundation through its Veterinary Student Scholars program, which provides grant support for aspiring scientists in the field of veterinary medicine. Dr. Jessica K. Walker, VSS recipient and co-author on this paper, is now manager at the New Zealand Companion Animal Council.

About Morris Animal Foundation

Morris Animal Foundation is a global leader in funding scientific studies that advance the health of companion animals, horses and wildlife. Since its founding in 1948, the Foundation has invested over $103 million in more than 2,500 studies that have led to significant breakthroughs in diagnostics, treatments and preventions to benefit animals worldwide. Learn more at Morris Animal Foundation