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Do dogs experience genuine grief when their owners don't come home? Of course they do

Emiliano Sala with his dog Nala
Footballer Emiliano Sala shared this picture of his dog Nala in 2017 Credit: Instagram/Facebook

The sister of missing footballer Emiliano Sala shared a heartbreaking image of the footballer’s dog Nala yesterday, patiently waiting for him to return home. Many people have been deeply moved by this photograph, but it has prompted others to wonder if the dog is genuinely upset, or is this just anthropomorphism: projecting human feelings onto an animal that’s not capable of emotions.

Until as recently as the 1980s, it was regarded as unscientific to suggest that animals experienced emotions. Animals’ reactions were seen as a series of automatic reflexes in response to stimuli from the environment. If anyone suggested that animals felt similar emotions to humans, they were naive, sentimental and deluded.

Advances in dynamic imaging of the brain have, however, changed this attitude. We now know that emotions originate from the more primitive parts of the brain, known as the sub-neocortical limbic regions, that are shared by humans and all mammals.

Imaging studies show that the same areas of the brain are activated when humans and other mammals are sad, happy, excited or fearful. We also share the same neurotransmitter chemicals, such as dopamine and endorphins.

Emiliano Sala's dog, Nala, has been pictured waiting for his master to come home Credit: Facebook

With such similar anatomy and neurophysiology, why would we not also share the same emotional feelings? It makes logical evolutionary sense, too: the function of emotions is to stimulate a change in behaviour to improve an animal’s chance of survival and reproduction. It’s now thought that emotions are a universal part of the shared experience of being alive, for animals and humans alike.

Behavioural studies on a wide range of animals support this argument. Marc Bekoff, Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, cites many examples that he has witnessed of animals showing grief at the loss of a close friend or loved one, including a greylag goose that had lost its partner, sealion mothers wailing mournfully as they watch their babies being eaten by killer whales, dolphins visibly grieving after losing an infant, elephants moping around in despair after the death of the matriarch in their herd, and a red fox burying her mate who had been killed by a cougar.

One of several pictures of Emiliano Sala with Nala posted on Facebook Credit: Facebook

As a vet in practice, I have seen many pets mourning the loss of housemates and owners. Typically, affected dogs and cats appear depressed, with signs including social withdrawal, inappetance (loss of appetite), loss of energy and decreased activity. And, yes, standing looking outside, head hung low, like the image of Nala, the footballer’s dog.

Spot was a farm Collie who went everywhere with his farmer owner, Joe. He sat in the tractor cab with him every day. After Joe died, Spot spent the first week continually searching for him, checking all the usual places they had visited together. He even stood at the farm gate, looking sadly up and down the road. More than a year passed before the dog began to behave normally again.

Ted, a terrier, was visibly devastated when his elderly owner died, waking in the early hours, howling, for weeks on end.

When his new owner consulted me, I suggested similar therapy given to grieving humans: take up new hobbies and find new friends.

For Ted, this meant going on walks in new locations and attending “doggy daycare” to meet new canine companions. He responded well to this, but I’ve had other cases that have needed treatment with anti-depressant medication to help them recover from their sense of loss.

Animals obviously don’t behave in an identical way to humans when a human or animal companion dies. They don’t have the ability to understand what’s going on in the same way as we do. But do they feel grief and sadness? Of course they do.

Have you owned a pet that has experienced grief over the loss of a human companion? Share the story of your pets' emotional  behaviour by either commenting below or by emailing [email protected] 

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