Sunday, April 14, 2013

Do Dogs Grieve?

Years ago, when our first Great Dane was two years old, we learned of a Great Dane pup that needed rescuing. We never knew what the puppy's owners were struggling with, but we saw the need for a new home for the puppy when we went to their apartment and found the puppy chained to the handle of a kitchen cupboard, barely able reach its food and water.
The people were relieved to have us take that dog off their hands. We named her Scarlet.

That little puppy grew up to be the happiest, sweetest dog you could ever know. She clearly was connected to us in every great doggie way. But Scarlet had an even greater devotion to our other dog. Watching those two dogs play together was a great joy. Their emotional connection was deep and obvious.
Eventually, the inevitable happened, and our first Dane died at the age of 10. Scarlet, now 8, was so profoundly depressed that she couldn't function in any way. She stopped eating, drinking, sleeping, playing. The dog who lived to run wouldn't even walk. Desperate, we took her to the vet.

My wife's sketch of Scarlet with her nose tucked under her paw

After examining her for a few minutes, the vet said, “I hate to tell you this, but it appears that your dog is dying of grief.”
We asked, “Is there anything we can do?”
He said, “I can't promise it will save her, but I think your best hope is to get another dog as soon as possible.”
We immediately went dog shopping and brought home another puppy.
The effect on our depressed dog was slow, but she began to get better. She began drinking and eating. Eventually, she rediscovered play. She went on to live until the age of 13, the oldest Great Dane our vet had ever seen.

As all pet owners know, the emotional lives of animals are as real as the emotional lives of people. Yes, people might be more complicated, but our emotions are no more profound. When you watch dogs play, it is obvious that their joy is just as joyful as that of any human. And when you watch a dog dying of grief, you can't deny that it is their depression that's killing them. Animals under severe stress sometimes give up and die just like humans do.
Scientists studying animals – and the general media that reports on them – made another small step forward into the obvious this week as Time Magazine did a story on Animal Grief. (Note that you have to be a subscriber to read the entire article.)  The article reports on scientists who've studied how various species deal with the death of their own. They looked at elephants and apes and dolphins and crows and horses and, of course, dogs and cats, and they found significant and unmistakable signs of serious grief in the animal world. Many species even have complex rituals they enact when one of their own dies.

I've written about animal intelligence and emotion before: 

This new article in Time Magazine prompts me to visit the subject again. Scientists are coming around. They've slowed down their knee-jerk impulse to label our observations of animal emotion and animal intelligence as anthropomorphizing, the unfounded attachment of human qualities to animals.
Some day, the experts will finally recognize what the rest of us have always known. Animals have lives that are nearly as rich and full of complex behaviors and social structures as the lives of people. (It seems that some of the time, some animals have richer and fuller lives than some people!)

When a Dolphin baby dies, the mother shows profound and complex grief. She keeps lifting the dead baby to the surface for days, and other Dolphins join in a long-term mourning ritual, refusing to leave the dead baby.

People are clever, and we are lucky enough to have opposable thumbs, which led to specialized brain development (imagine what dolphins might do with opposable thumbs!), but it's arrogant to think that our suffering when one of us dies is greater than the suffering animals endure when their loved ones die. If your grief is powerful enough to kill you, it's all powerful, regardless of what species you belong to.

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