Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Losing a Pet Can Lead to Different Types of Grief

New research looks at the factors that influence how we feel after euthanizing a pet.

A sad-looking Shiba Inu lies on a bed

The loss of a pet is a difficult process. People’s feelings of grief may be the same as for losing a human family member. New research investigates some of the factors that may affect people’s grief and sorrow after euthanizing a dog or cat.

The study, by Sandra Barnard-Nguyen (University of Sydney) et al, is one of the first to use a survey designed specifically to measure people’s responses to loss of a pet, rather than a human. This takes account of differences in the experience, including the decision to euthanize a pet.

A reaction of grief and sorrow on the loss of a pet can be seen as part of a normal psychological process.  However in some people there may be feelings of guilt and anger that are more problematic. This type of grief is seen as ‘complicated’ and may sometimes develop into depression or other mental health issues.

The study looked at these three types of grief in people who had euthanized a pet in the previous year. Sorrow and grief was measured by questions like “I miss my pet enormously.” Anger might be directed at the person themselves, or at veterinary staff (e.g. “I feel anger at the veterinarian for not being able to save my pet.” Guilt included feeling that “I feel bad that I didn’t do more to save my pet.”

One way of understanding our relationship with pets is through attachment theory, the idea being that we become attached to our pets in much the same way as we do to people. From this perspective, you would expect people with a stronger attachment to their pet to feel more grief when the pet dies.

And this is one of the findings of the study. People who were more attached to their pet reported more grief and sorrow, and also more feelings of anger (but not guilt).

The scientists write,
“While guilt can certainly be related to the decision to euthanize a companion animal, it may be the case that pet owners are effectively rationalizing this decision as being in the best interest of the pet. Additionally, veterinary staff may be helpful in explaining the need for euthanasia in end-of-life situations and in supporting and validating the decisions made by pet owners.”
The researchers expected to find that people who were younger or lived alone would be more like to experience complicated grief, perhaps because they might have less social support. However, this was not the case, even though it has been found in earlier work. It shows that more research is needed into possible links between owner characteristics and experiences of grief.

Finally, they found that the circumstances of euthanasia made a difference to people’s grief. A sudden death for the animal was linked to greater feelings of anger. In contrast, if the pet had had cancer, people had lower feelings of both anger and guilt.

A St. Bernard in a snowy landscape

The scientists have recommendations for veterinarians:
“Identifying pet owners who may be at greatest risk for problematic grief reactions has substantial clinical value for veterinary staff. While veterinary staff should be prepared to support all clients in their grief, recognizing that an owner is highly attached to their pet or that a pet has died a sudden or traumatic death, for example, should trigger additional support responses.”
The survey was completed by 409 people who had euthanized a dog (78.5%) or cat in the previous year. The average age of the pet was 10 years old; 52% had died suddenly and 43% had been diagnosed with cancer.

Earlier research by Tzivian et al (2015) found that losing a pet is a stressful life event, and social support is important to help people cope. This new research by Barnard-Nguyen et al is an important addition to the literature and helps us to better understand people’s experiences of grief when losing a pet.

Although social support is important to everyone who loses a pet, this study suggests some pet owners may need that support even more than others. It also suggests that the way veterinarians support their clients to make decisions about euthanasia and to understand what is in the best interests of the pet may make a difference to people's subsequent grief response.

What helped you to cope with losing a pet?

Barnard-Nguyen, S., Breit, M., Anderson, K., & Nielsen, J. (2016). Pet Loss and Grief: Identifying At-risk Pet Owners during the Euthanasia Process Anthrozoös, 29 (3), 421-430 DOI: 10.1080/08927936.2016.1181362
Photos: mannpuku and Grigorita Ko (both

Sunday, 4 December 2016

Companion Animal Psychology Book Club: December 2016

The book of the month is The Secret History of Kindness by Melissa Holbrook Pierson.

A happy mixed-breed dog sits on a beach with a pile of books

The Companion Animal Psychology Book Club continues with discussion of The Secret History of Kindness: Learning from How Dogs Learn by Melissa Holbrook Pierson.

From the cover, "Pierson draws surprising connections in her exploration of how kindness works to motivate all animals, including the human one."

Later in the month, I will post my comments about the book, along with some highlights of the book club discussion.

You will be able to leave your thoughts on the book in the comments section.

Through the book club, we will learn more about companion animals and our relationship with them, build up a nice library of books about animals, and of course enjoy talking about the books.

Are you reading too?

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Playtime After Training Improves a Dog's Memory

Making time for play immediately after a dog training session improves the dog’s memory.

A Labrador Retriever playing fetch in the snow

New research by Nadja Affenzeller (University of Lincoln) et al investigates whether play following learning leads to better performance the next day. The scientists wanted to know whether this effect, previously found in humans, would also apply to dogs.

In people, it is thought that the hormonal response during positive arousal acts on parts of the brain called the hippocampus and amygdala and leads to better memory. The effect applies to a type of memory called declarative memory, which is our memory for facts and events (for example, the President of the United States, or the capital of Denmark).

Now we can’t expect dogs to tell us who is the President of the United States, but it is possible to get them to do a task very similar to one used in some of the human memory research: learning to tell the difference between two objects.

The results show that the dogs who got to play immediately after learning needed fewer trials in the task the next day, compared to the dogs who had rested instead.

First of all, each dog had a pre-training session, in which the dog was taught to approach an object. In the very early stages, food was placed on the object, and when the dog approached, s/he was allowed to eat it.

For those interested in the food canine scientists use as rewards, it was either a piece of pork or chicken sausage, depending on the dog’s dietary preferences.

In the training session, the dogs were taught to distinguish between two objects and choose the right one by putting their two front paws on a cardboard square on which the object was placed. If they went to the correct object, the researcher clicked and then gave them a reward. If they picked the wrong object, the researcher used a no-reward marker (“wrong” said in a neutral tone of voice).

The objects were not things the dogs were used to. There was a blue basket with white dots which contained a layer of woodchips, and a green box with black stripes on that had a layer of cat litter at the bottom.

The dogs were trained in sessions of 10 trials, until they had got 80% right in two sessions in a row.

Immediately after doing this, dogs either had a play session or a rest session, depending which group they were in.

The 8 dogs in the play session had a 10 minute walk to an enclosed area where they had a 10 minute play session, followed by the walk back. Dogs had a choice between fetching a ball or Frisbee, or playing tug.

The 8 dogs in the rest session were given a bed to lie on while the owner and researcher engaged in a 30 minute conversation. The researcher kept an eye on the dog and said their name or distracted them to prevent them from going to sleep.

The next day, the dogs came back to learn the same task again.

Dogs that had taken part in the play session re-learned the object discrimination much more quickly, taking 26 trials on average (plus or minus 6), compared to 43 trials (plus or minus 19) for the dogs who had rested.

A Labrador Retriever about to catch a tennis ball

The researchers took measures of heart rate, which differed between play/rest sessions as you would expect, but otherwise was the same for both groups of dogs. They also found that salivary cortisol was lower after the play sessions, which they found surprising (if you’re interested in salivary cortisol research, see this post by Julie Hecht).

19 Labrador Retrievers, aged between 1 and 9 years old, took part. The study focussed only on purebred Labrador Retrievers so that breed could not affect the results. Their prior training levels were also taken into account and evenly distributed across the two groups.

This turned out to be important, because the ‘experienced’ dogs who had previously taken part in cognitive tasks like this learned the task much more quickly. The gundogs need more trials, perhaps because they had previous experience of following human cues in the field, which didn’t happen in the lab. Some of the dogs were ‘naïve’ and had only basic obedience, did not work or participate in trials, and had never taken part in similar research before.

This shows it is important to take prior training experience into account when designing canine research studies.

Three of the dogs had to be excluded (two because of motivation issues, and one because of a preference for one of the objects), so only 16 took part in the full study.

The study does not show the mechanism by which memory is improved, but it is thought to relate to the hormones produced during the play session. However, the play also included exercise, and further research is needed to confirm whether it is play per se or exercise that caused the effect.

The scientists write,
“The results show that engaging in playful activity for 30 min after successfully learning the task improved re-training performance, evidenced by fewer trials needed to meet task criteria 24 h after initial acquisition. This significant difference between the two groups not only suggests that the intervention is affecting long-term memory rather than an improved short-term memory, but also that pleasant arousal post-learning has similar effects on enhancing memory in dogs as it does in humans.” 

This study asked dogs to discriminate between two objects that looked and smelled different. A similar real-life training task is scent detection. Further research to investigate the best ways to improve performance in the training of scent dogs for drug or explosives detection, or in medical testing, could be very exciting.

It’s nice to know another way in which dogs are like people. And next time someone says they’d like to end a dog training session on a positive note, perhaps a game of tug or fetch is in order.

If you're interested in the research on dog training, check out my dog training research resources page or my post about why canine science is better than common sense.

Affenzeller, N., Palme, R., & Zulch, H. (2017). Playful activity post-learning improves training performance in Labrador Retriever dogs (Canis lupus familiaris) Physiology & Behavior, 168, 62-73 DOI: 10.1016/j.physbeh.2016.10.014
Photos: dezi (top) and Dmussman (both
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