At least once a month or so a client will call with questions about pets who seem to grieve for their lost companions. Sometimes it’s a human death at hand, but more often it’s about pets who “miss” their recently departed conspecific (typically another cat or dog):
What should I do to help her grieve? Will he ever get over the loss? Could grief be making her sick?
I’m not always sure how to handle the questions since sometimes it’s obvious that human grief may well be the overriding issue. So I have to wonder, is this just our human way of anthropomorphizing our pets…or is it something more real?
I had cause to rethink this issue after reading an article in The New York Times’ science section yesterday. It detailed the heartbreaking story of Gana, a gorilla in the Munich Zoo whose several month-old infant succumbed to a congenital cardiac ailment. After its death she carried the dead baby around for days in a not-atypical display of non-human primate “mourning” where mothers will refuse to relinquish their young until they’re well-decayed.
The article proceeded to question what death means for different species: “dinner” for lions (who eat their dead mates) and perhaps “remembrance” for elephants drawn to the bones of their lost ones. But is it really “grief”?
I couldn’t tell you with any certainty but it’s my belief that dogs and cats experience grief—albeit differently from the Elizabeth Kübler-Ross variety most of us are intimately aware of. In my personal experience, “pet grief” resembles more a confused, missing-you state of stress: Where did she go?
Pets closely bonded to the deceased may pace, appear to search for their lost companion, eat less or demonstrate changes to their sleep/wake cycles. Most owners interpret this as depression—and who’s to say they’re not right?
Detractors of the concept of grief in animals suggest that pets are merely picking up on our emotional cues. That animals are devoid of cognition when it comes to the past and are therefore incapable of understanding grief the way we do.
Yet even if that’s true, don’t they still experience the loss in some way? I think that’s undeniable. And isn’t the simple experience of loss a sort of grief, too?
Why the need to question animal emotion, anyway?
We no longer question whether basic human physiologic functions are experienced similarly in mammals. We intuit that they feel pain and can document behavioral and physiologic changes that accompany it, for example.
So why do we assume that basic emotions elude them simply because they cannot conceive what is happening to them the same way we do? Their limited cognition doesn't decrease pain after injury any, does it? Why, then, do we wonder whether or not animal emotions like grief convey biological advantages?
Is it simply because we can't understand how that might work? Or is it maybe because if we know animals are capable of more complex emotions like grief we'll have even more cause to question how we treat them...?