Veterinary observations of grieving and loss in animals
When my family finally made the heart-wrenching decision to euthanize our elderly and sick dog Ody, we invited Maya, who had been Ody’s canine housemate and friend for the past 10 years, to be present. Ody was finally put to rest on his favorite couch, and Maya curled up next to him during the procedure and rested her head on his back. When Ody breathed his last breath, Maya lifted her head and cocked it to the side, as if noticing some essential change. For the next week, Maya whined as she walked around the house and seemed subdued. My best guess is that she was grieving for Ody.
Source: Ody on his favorite couch. Photo by Jessica Pierce.
I am not alone in believing that many animals grieve for lost friends and family. Since publishing my book The Last Walk in 2012, I’ve gotten countless emails from people sharing stories about the death of a pet, and many of these include accounts of animal grieving. According to a survey of the general public conducted in 2013, upwards of 90 percent of people believe that animals experience grief—not just when a friend dies, but in other situations of social loss such as when a baby animal is taken from his or her mother, and when an animal is separated from family or friends (McGrath et al. 2013).
I was very interested, then, to read a research paper published last week by George Dickinson and Heath Hoffman in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior. The question, as Dickinson and Hoffman phrase it in the title of their paper, is whether animals understand the difference between “dead” and simply “away”? Dickinson and Heath surveyed a group of veterinarians, to see whether they had observed behavioral changes in animals when another animal had been euthanized in their presence. They followed up by inviting veterinarians who had observed behavioral reactions to speculate about why these reactions might occur. Dickinson and Hoffman’s results are fascinating.
Of the veterinarians surveyed, just over half reported that they had observed a behavior change in a left-behind animal. Asked to speculate about what the left-behind animal was sensing or experiencing, the respondents offered various possibilities (from most to least mentioned): animal grief and empathy, reaction to the emotions of the human, reaction to changes in the physical/emotional state of the animal being euthanized; pack disruption/change in household dynamic; the animals smelled a chemical change in the body of the dying; fear or anxiety in response to the whole situation (the presence of the veterinarian, etc.); sensing the release of the euthanized animal’s spirit; curiosity; instinct. Dogs were most likely to show observed behavioral changes, including barking, agitation, or sudden quiet, with horses the next most likely. (The survey only asked about dogs, cats, horses, and “other.”)
This is a very small study (of 153 veterinarians), of course, but the results raise many important questions. What is most surprising to me about this study is the very small number of veterinarians who reported observing changes. I work closely with AHPC vets, and everyone observes behavioral changes in other animals at some point or another. Not in every single animal; but everyone has had experiences of this sort.
Why did only 50% of veterinarians observe changes? This number seems exceedingly low to me, particularly in comparison to the 90% survey results from the general public. There are any number of explanations for the difference (all of them speculative on my part).
First of all, it could be that veterinarians try to be more “scientific” in their interpretations of animal behavior than the general public, and are more reluctant to “anthropomorphize.” Yet the capacity for grief in animals is quite well-established scientifically, and ethologists openly and frequently use the language of “grief” to describe the feelings of animals. If there is reluctance among veterinarians to ascribing feelings to animals, perhaps greater exposure to the ethological literature is in order.
It may be that veterinarians simply aren’t watching for behavioral responses from other animals. They have other things on their mind, such as performing the euthanasia proficiently. Furthermore, most euthanasia “visits” with a vet are very short, rarely lasting more than 30-45 minutes: the vet is in and out, and isn’t there to observe the fallout among family members. In many euthanasia scenarios, other animals are not present, either because the euthanasia is taking place at the veterinary clinic (where other animal family members would rarely be invited), or because many people—including many vets—assume that other family members (animals) should not be present, either because they will be disruptive or because they may get upset.
Which suggests to another possible reason for the low number among vets: the two most prominent veterinary professional organizations (the American Veterinary Medical Association and the American Animal Hospital Association) both recommend against euthanizing an animal in the presence of other animals—advice that, in my opinion, is both outdated and misguided.
Some of the veterinarians surveyed may not regularly perform euthanasia, and if they do, they may (as is the norm) only perform euthanasia in their clinic, not in the animal’s own home. If, as is rarely but sometimes the case, an animal is euthanized in the clinic and a companion animal is present, it is highly likely that the clinic setting will have altered the baseline behavior of the animal. I know very few dogs, and even fewer cats, who are neutral about visiting the vet clinic.
Finally, veterinarians may simply not be counting behaviors as having any relation to death. Since we know very little about death-related behaviors in animals, we don’t have a ready-made list of “things to watch for,” and may ignore or discount behaviors as irrelevant which really aren’t. Furthermore, grieving behaviors might be quite subtle. If a veterinarian were watching only for overt signs of grieving and didn’t see any, he or she might report “no death-related behavior”—having missed all kinds of behavioral changes in the left-behind animal.
In the end, then, Dickinson and Hoffman’s paper tells us a lot more about humans—and particularly about how we practice euthanasia—than it does about animals. More than anything, it suggests to me that we still have a lot to do to become more sensitive to the emotional experiences of the animals whose lives we bring to a close and, even more, to the experiences of the animal loved-ones who are left behind. The death of their friends and family is surely important to nonhuman animals. We don’t know very much about what animals are experiencing, but it certainly isn’t nothing. Keeping an open mind is essential, otherwise we won’t ever get any closer to knowing… and it seems to me we might just have a lot to learn from our kin.
McGrath, N., Walker, J., Nilsson, D., and Phillips, C. Public Attitudes toward Grief in Animals, Animal Welfare (2013).