Do animals feel grief after suffering loss?

By Pete Wedderburn - Animal Doctor

Many animals show signs of grief after losing a loved one
Many animals show signs of grief after losing a loved one

Both of my parents have passed away in the last year: they were both elderly, and had enjoyed long and fruitful lives, so there was much to be thankful for. The experience of losing them has taught me a direct personal lesson about grief. This must be one of the deepest emotions felt by humans, and I am often asked if animals experience the same feeling when they lose a close friend, whether a human owner or a fellow animal companion.

It has been said that there are five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. As someone who has been through grief recently, I can recognise some of these aspects in myself, but clearly animals can't experience all of these directly. They don't have a big enough forebrain to go through the thinking aspect of concepts like "bargaining". When assessing grief felt by animals, the emotional state can perhaps be simplified to two more basic aspects that are also felt by humans: first, what might best be described as "wailing distress", and second, that general sense of sadness.

"Wailing distress" is the most basic emotion felt when grieving. It's that feeling of being punched in the solar plexus that you get when someone informs you that someone has just died. It's that rush of breathlessness and uncontrollable tears that hits you when you hear music that reminds you of the person who has passed away. It's that irrational sudden loss of ability to continue reading a poem that I felt when I stood up to speak at my father's funeral. It's a pure emotion that seems separate from our conscious, thinking selves. It takes us by surprise, sneaking up on us and stopping the rational bit of our brain from continuing with "business as normal". "Wailing distress" seems to have a life of its own, deep inside our consciousness. And there's no doubt that some animals feel this same emotion when bereaved.

There are many examples. A male gorilla howling beside the prone body of his mate, elephants trumpeting as they stand in a group around a deceased herd mate, magpies cackling as a group beside a dead magpie, cows bellowing when they've lost a calf, dogs howling after losing a close human or animal companion. There are also stories about sealion mothers wailing in distress as they watch their babies being eaten by killer whales, and dolphins making keening noises after losing an infant.

The latest dynamic brain imaging techniques have shown that emotions are associated with activity in the more primitive parts of the brain that humans share with all other mammals. Biochemical studies have shown that we also share the same neurotransmitter chemicals in our brain with animals. I am not aware of any specific studies that have been carried out during these moments of "wailing distress" to compare human and animal brain activity, but is seems obvious that when the same outward signs of distress are shown, the same internal sense of being emotionally overwrought must surely be shared.

The second, longer lasting, emotion caused by bereavement is the most basic: sadness. Everyone who is bereaved must surely share this sense: the awareness that the companion that you loved is no longer in your life means that you feel generally despondent. Depression, one of the classic stages of grief, is defined as a persistent feeling of sadness.

Do animals feel sadness or get depressed when a loved one dies? This is a difficult question to answer: animals can't talk to us, so they can't explain what they're feeling. However, we can observe their behaviour. Do animals look sad when they lose a close companion?

The answer to this is: sometimes. There are some animals who definitely mope around, moving more slowly than normal, showing little interest in normal daily activities (like walking or eating) and showing most of the signs that humans exhibit when they are feeling sad. There are many classic examples of animals who displayed clear signs of long lasting sadness due to grief. There's a statue in Edinburgh of Greyfriars Bobby, a Skye Terrier who guarded his owner's grave for fourteen years until his own eventual death. Many owners have told me about their pets showing signs of sadness after losing a companion, but in most cases, this passes after a few weeks or months. Just like most bereaved humans, most animals gradually return to a state of mind which is close - if not identical - to how they were before the loss.

Other animals show no sign of sadness at all. I have even known animals that seem to be happier than before when another animal in the house dies. A dog who may have been dominated by an older animal can sometimes be transformed from a quiet, shy creature into a confident, outgoing animal.

The truth is that there is much variety in the way that animals are affected by loss. Some feel intense grief, and others don't. For owners, it's important to be sensitive to the possibility that their pets may be sad at these times and to react accordingly. Treat them kindly: plenty of enjoyable walks, show them affection, and try to distract them if they seem sad. That old adage "time is a great healer" applies as much to animals as it does to ourselves.

Wexford People

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