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Do animals feel grief?

by Heike Hahner

Recently a fox took my birds (one hen, nine chicks, as well as a rooster). I bought a couple of companions for the remaining chicks, but the older chooks would not move for days.

My birds are free ranging and sleep in an oak tree. Following the attack, the two survivors either huddled on the ground somewhere or high up in the tree. Eventually, I put them in the coop where they stayed perched for nearly another week, only coming down to eat. What was going on with them?

We have all seen and heard of dogs lying on their dead owner’s bed or waiting days or months for a loved one to return.

I have always taken grief in animals with a grain of salt. I hadn’t had any direct experience with it; none of my dogs had shown distress when one of the other dogs had passed.

Florian and Till changed my mind

In February, I had to have my almost-14 year old German shepherd, Florian, put to sleep. Florian was very social and engaged with the other dogs until the day he died. He was the ultimate benevolent leader, gentle and playful with pups, but forceful and determined to keep the older boys in line.

Till, a cattle dog, had been Florian’s devoted servant since he was eight weeks old. So I expected to see some reaction, but nothing seemed to happen while Florian’s body was lying in the garden waiting for the burial. The dogs would go up and sniff him, but seemed not to quite be able to grasp what had happened to him.

This however all changed when we went to bury him. I had already noticed that Till got very agitated when I dragged Florian’s body to the graveside. He growled and pawed at the blanket covering the body, as if trying to wake him up.

With the help of friends, we turned and moved the body to make sure it was lying right. This nearly caused a major fight between Till and another one of my dogs, Ezra, who had been present at the euthanasia. I put the two younger dogs in the car, to prevent a fight.

Till got very upset again when we went to cover the body with soil, growling, whining, pacing and attempting to dig the soil away from the body. I ended up cuddling and comforting him while my friends covered the body.

Due to Till’s strong distress and desire to dig up Florian’s body, we ended up building a substantial cairn over it. Till’s distress was one of the saddest things I have witnessed. He was panting, pacing and trying to dig his mate back out; when we stopped him he went off and hid under a chair and later, under the car.

I expected Till to be upset so I focused on distracting him, by taking him with me on more trips – swimming or throwing sticks around. It is clear that comforting them and being there for them is just as important to a grieving pet as it is for a grieving person.

I do not have any doubt that dogs grieve and feel loss. Animals, and dogs in particular, need our support if they lose a loved one, be that another animal or a person.

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