Archive for June, 2010

Science steadily continues to produce evidence that the line between humanity and “non-human sentient beings” is more blurred than many would like. Research published online today in the Current Biology journal includes detailed accounts of chimpanzees grieving for family members, including video footage. The images are strikingly similar to those broadcast around the world in 2008 when a mother gorilla in a German zoo grieved for her dead baby.
Until recently, it was believed by scientists that this type of awareness of death, and sadness at the passing of others, was unique to humans. Whatever about the formal acceptance by scientists, vets in practice have known for many years that some animals understand about death.


The process of euthanasia provides a good example.  Vets have made a point for many years of avoiding euthanasing animals in the presence of other animals, out of respect for the possible sensitivities of the surviving animal. And after a dog has been euthanased at home, the other pets in the house is often brought in and shown the lifeless body. Animals do not react in the same way as humans in similar circumstances, but onlookers frequently have a sense that some type of acknowledgement takes place.

As an “agony uncle” to Telegraph readers, I receive regular letters from readers worrying about one pet grieving after another has died. While it’s impossible to know what’s going on inside a dog’s head, it seems as if they can be affected in two ways when they lose a long term canine friend.

First of all, many animals (not all) do seem to become depressed because of grief, just like humans. Dogs become quiet and withdrawn, they lose their appetite and their zest for life. They can be helped in simple ways, such as taking them for more walks, especially in areas with an opportunity for increased interaction with other dogs. Rarely, a short course of anti-depressant medication from a vet may be needed.

The second way that dogs are adversely affected after losing a housemate has nothing to do with grief: if a dog has always been the subordinate animal in a household, he may be used to being a follower, and may not know how to make decisions on what to do. Such animals can also become quiet and withdrawn, but it’s not the same as grief. Owners need to spend extra time training them, with simple commands and lots of praise and treats, to gradually boost their self confidence. Such dogs eventually learn that they don’t need to look for another dog for guidance, and that they can manage well on their own.

Of course, in the absence of language, our understanding of the emotions of animals is always going to be open to interpretation. As one scientist in the current research paper puts it: “We only have access to behaviour, not to internal mental states.”

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