Animals and Grief

Posted on by Ashley Fruno

Depressed cat

A recent study by biological anthropologist Barbara J. King has tackled the question of whether animals grieve. Through her personal experience and research, King has concluded that many animals do grieve and that their grief can be deep and prolonged. 

King was convinced by the story of Wilma, a Siamese cat whose sister died after 14 years together. Wilma searched the house for her lost sister, Carson, repeatedly and, most tellingly, kept returning to areas that she and her sister had often frequented together. When Wilma could not find Carson in the places where she clearly remembered her best, she wailed.

Many people allow that intense emotions may be experienced by those animals who are perceived as being more intelligent. For example, elephants may behave in ways that indicate grief when they come across the bones of other elephants—picking them up or stroking them and calling to each other. This is widely seen as the elephants associating the bones with the death of one of their own.

But what about the animals we are less inclined to attribute such emotions to? One day I found May, one of my female rats, sitting over and gently grooming the body of her friend who had passed during the night. I watched her obvious distress for several days after and believe she was showing clear signs of grief. The two had been separated on occasion before—when one had made a trip to the vet or received some individual attention—but this time, she seemed to understand immediately that her friend would not be coming back.

Just as some humans need to see the body a loved one who has died, this process may also help nonhuman animals understand what has happened. We may need to be patient if grieving animals are louder than usual or refuse to eat their normal food. While you should not encourage this behavior, please be kind to your friends and never punish or yell at them for expressing their grief. And of course, if they seem unwell or continue to refuse food, you should take them to a veterinarian. Remember: Animals rely on us to be a responsible guardian, so please don’t spend all your own time grieving for the ones you have lost and forget the ones you still have by your side.

Posted by Claire Fryer