Losing a Pet is More Painful Than Most People Realize, Studies Show
In some cases, pet owners grieve for loss of animals more than humans
Losing a beloved pet is often an emotionally devastating experience, yet, as a society, most people don't recognize how painful this loss can be and the impact it can have on our emotional and physical health.
Symptoms of acute grief after the loss of a pet can last from one to two months, with symptoms of grief persisting up to a full year (on average).
The New England Journal of Medicine reported in October 2017 that after her dog died, a woman experienced “broken heart syndrome”—a condition in which the response to grief is so severe the person exhibits symptoms that mimic a heart attack, including elevated hormone levels that can be 30 times greater than normal.
Research has confirmed that for most people, the loss of a dog is, in almost every way, comparable to the loss of a human loved one.
There’s little in our cultural playbook – no grief rituals, no obituary in the local newspaper, no religious service – to help us get through the loss of a pet, which can make us feel more than a bit embarrassed to show too much public grief over our dead dogs.
An interspecies bond like no other
What is it about dogs, exactly, that make humans bond so closely with them?
For starters, dogs have had to adapt to living with humans over the past 10,000 years.
And they’ve done it very well: They’re the only animal to have evolved specifically to be our companions and friends.
Anthropologist Brian Hare has developed the “Domestication Hypothesis” to explain how dogs morphed from their grey wolf ancestors into the socially skilled animals that we now interact with in very much the same way as we interact with other people.
Perhaps one reason our bond with dogs can be even more satisfying than our human relationships is that dogs provide us with such unconditional, uncritical positive feedback. (As the old saying goes, “May I become the kind of person that my dog thinks I already am.”)
According to The Conversation, this is no accident.
They have been selectively bred through generations to pay attention to people, and MRI scans show that dog brains respond to praise from their owners just as strongly as they do to food (and for some dogs, praise is an even more effective incentive than food).
Dogs recognize people and can learn to interpret human emotional states from facial expression alone.
Not surprisingly, humans respond positively to such unqualified affection, assistance, and loyalty.
Just looking at dogs can make people smile.
Dog owners score higher on measures of well-being and they are happier, on average, than people who own cats or no pets at all.
Like a member of the family
Our strong attachment to dogs was subtly revealed in a recent study of “misnaming.”
Misnaming happens when you call someone by the wrong name, like when parents mistakenly call one of their kids by a sibling’s name.
It turns out that the name of the family dog also gets confused with human family members, indicating that the dog’s name is being pulled from the same cognitive pool that contains other members of the family. (Curiously, the same thing rarely happens with cat names.)
It’s no wonder dog owners miss them so much when they’re gone.
Psychologist Julie Axelrod has pointed out that the loss of a dog is so painful because owners aren’t just losing the pet.
It could mean the loss of a source of unconditional love, a primary companion who provides security and comfort, and maybe even a protégé that’s been mentored like a child.
The loss of a dog can also seriously disrupt an owner’s daily routine more profoundly than the loss of most friends and relatives.
For owners, their daily schedules – even their vacation plans – can revolve around the needs of their pets.
Changes in lifestyle and routine are some of the primary sources of stress.
According to a recent survey, many bereaved pet owners will even mistakenly interpret ambiguous sights and sounds as the movements, pants, and whimpers of the deceased pet.
This is most likely to happen shortly after the death of the pet, especially among owners who had very high levels of attachment to their pets.
While the death of a dog is horrible, dog owners have become so accustomed to the reassuring and nonjudgmental presence of their canine companions that, more often than not, they’ll eventually get a new one.