Just Explain It: How animals grieve


Animals are known to grieve. How does that help us understand them?

We may not think animals have feelings, but, in fact, science has proven that they experience a range of emotions, particularly grief.

In August 2011, when Navy SEAL Jon Tumilson’s helicopter was shot down in Afghanistan, killing him and 29 other American troops, it wasn’t just people who mourned his loss. At Tumilson's funeral, his Labrador, Hawkeye, walked to the casket, sighed, and then laid by the coffin for the rest of the service.

In this Just Explain It, we'll look at some of the evidence surrounding animal anguish, and how to help a pet get through the loss of a caretaker or pet companion.

In the book "How Animals Grieve," anthropologist Barbara King documented this phenomenon in the wild. She found that grief is displayed when an animal, "acts in ways that are visibly distressed or altered from the usual routine," in response to something like a companion animal's death.

Elephants have been observed staying with the body of a deceased elephant for long periods of time, like a two-year-old African elephant at a zoo in Hungary who stayed with its mother for 14 hours after she died. Keepers say the calf continued to weep after his mother’s body was removed.

Similar behavior has been seen in non-human primates. In 2008, a gorilla at a German zoo named Gana mourned the death of her three-month-old baby - carrying his body around for almost a week, refusing to let anyone to take the baby.

It's not just wild animals that grieve, as Hawkeye’s story shows us. In a video that went viral, a dog, Bella, was filmed mourning the loss of a friendly wild beaver named Beavis it had grown attached to.

[Related: Is This Evidence Of A Dog Mourning The Loss Of A Friend?]

In 1996, the ASPCA released the Companion Animal Mourning Project. It examined grief dogs have for each other, whose pack mentality and social nature makes them particularly vulnerable to mourning. The survey found thirty-six percent ate less after the death of a canine companion, while eleven percent stopped eating completely. Sixty-three percent changed how vocal they were by becoming either more vocal or quieter, and more than half became clingy with their owners.

[Related: How Family Pets Yield High ROI In Financial And Health Benefits]

About 62 percent of U.S. households have a pet. So, naturally, you want to know what you can do to help your pet after the loss of a loved one.

-If it’s a pet companion that dies, experts recommend allowing the surviving pet to attend the euthanasia or see its deceased friend. This allows the pet to see and acknowledge their companion's passing.

-Spend extra time with the surviving pet. Take longer walks with a dog. For a cat, playing games and extra grooming can help.

-Maintain your pet’s discipline. While it’s grieving, your pet may act out. And while it might seem like you’re being understanding or comforting by allowing your pet to get away with bad behavior, those bad habits will be harder to break when they’re done mourning.

-You might be tempted to quickly get a new pet, but it could add more stress for the surviving one. Stability is important while mourning. It’s best to wait about three months before getting another pet.

-Many of these suggestions can help if the pet lost a human companion. However, if it is their sole human owner, it could be even more distressing, because the pet may have lost their home, too. Maintaining routines can help with the transition to a new home.

-And if signs of grief last more than a few weeks, take your pet to the veterinarian. It could be a serious health issue.

[Related: 5 Health Problems Dog Owners Ignore]

Most of all, keep in mind that grief usually does pass for pets, just as it does for humans.

Tell us. Has your pet grieved over a loved one? Does knowing that animals have emotions change the way you think about them? Give us your feedback in the comments section below or on Twitter using #JustExplainItNews.What does animal grief tell us about animal intelligence? And how does knowing about their grief connect us to them? Join us this Friday, June 28 at 12:30pm ET to find out more about grief in animals that live in the wild and with us. We’ll have a conversation with veterinary behaviorist Chris Pachel, and Barbara King anthropologist and author of "How Animals Grieve."

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