Dogs May Show Grieving Behavior When They Lose a Buddy

Nearly 90% of owners report changes in a dog when a canine friend dies.

sad dog on couch
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Dogs may grieve when they lose a canine buddy, new research finds.

Behavioral and emotional changes shown by a dog after another dog in the household dies may be a sign of grief, according to a new study by Italian researchers.

Grief-like behaviors have been studied and reported in some other animals, but researchers were unsure if pet dogs grieve.

“The impetus for our research was our common willingness to help reveal a still very obscure side, at least for us humans, of the lives of domestic dogs: their complex emotions, particularly grief,” study author and veterinarian Federica Pirrone of the University of Milan tells Treehugger.

“In general, emotions of non-human animals are extremely difficult to explore, and for this reason they continue to be a challenge for scientists. Other social species such as great apes, whales, dolphins, elephants, and birds have been described to engage in death rituals in which one could see the expression of grief. As for dogs, evidence is currently sparse and mainly anecdotal.”

For their study, scientists surveyed 426 Italian dog owners who had owned at least two dogs, where one died while the other was still alive.

They asked owners questions about the characteristics of their dogs, the relationships between the pets, and whether there were any behavioral or emotional changes in the surviving dog. Owners were also asked about their level of attachment to their pet, how distressed they were when their dog died, and were asked to answer questions about life and grief, and how they perceive animals and emotions.

Changes in Clinginess, Sleep, and Eating

The researchers found that the majority of owners (86%) reported changes in the surviving pet’s behavior after their canine friend had died. About one-third said those changes lasted between two and six months and one-quarter reported that lasted longer than six months.

The changes ranged from becoming clingier to altering their sleep and eating habits. About two-thirds (67%) reported the surviving dog looked for more attention, 57% said they played less, and 46% reported they became less active. In addition, more than one-third said the surviving dog slept more and became more fearful; while 32% said they ate less and 30% said the dog whined or barked more than before.

“Surviving animals were reported to seek for more attention, eat and play less. Overall, they were less active than when the other dog was still alive,” says Pirrone. “However, these changes occurred only when the two dogs were bonded by a particularly friendly or even parental relationship. So, the quality of their bond was the main factor influencing them.”

The findings were published in Scientific Reports.

Relationships Matter

Researchers found that there was no connection between the length of time the dogs lived together and how the surviving dog responded. However, when dogs had a friendly relationship with the deceased pet and when the owner showed obvious grief, the surviving pet was more likely to exhibit negative behavioral changes and become fearful.

“In general, the reactions and emotions of the owner of the deceased dog could affect the behavior of the survivor,” Pirrone says.

“However, in our study, the owners showed ways of relating to animals and of representing their life/death that were not correlated with changes in the behavior of dogs after the death of the conspecific. This is important because it indicates that these reported variations reflected real behavioral changes presumably resulting from the loss of the conspecific, regardless of the owner’s own feelings and memories over the same loss.”

The quality of the relationship between the dogs and whether they often shared food often coincided with negative behavioral changes when one of the dogs died, the researchers found.

“By contrast, the time the two dogs had spent together had no effect on the behaviors of the surviving dog,” PIrrone says. “The owner’s grief and anger, instead, increased the surviving dog’s likelihood of being described as more fearful than before, thus suggesting that the animal’s emotional patterns when a close conspecific dies were possibly related to the owner’s emotional status.

Knowing that dogs likely experience changes due to grief can help both researchers and pet owners.

“Today millions of families around the world live with more than one dog,” Pirrone points out. “Knowing the behavioral reactions and emotions aroused by the death of a dog is therefore fundamental because it will allow us to recognize the emotional needs of many animals, which are actually at risk of suffering from the loss of a canine companion.”

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  1. study author and veterinarian Federica Pirrone of the University of Milan

  2. Uccheddu, S., Ronconi, L., Albertini, M. et al. "Domestic dogs (Canis familiaris) grieve over the loss of a conspecific." Scientific Reports, vol. 12, no. 1920, February 2022. doi:10.1038/s41598-022-05669-y