Animals and Grief: A journal club discussion

In an attempt to keep up regular content… Apologies in advance for the depressing nature. To balance the depression, this post may also get a little nerdy.

Subi isn’t handling the loss of his best friend well at all so, me, being a librarian, turned to journal literature for answers. I should clarify that. Me, being a medical librarian, turned to journal literature for answers.


Shock of all shocks, Subi ate something. 

Unfortunately, there is not a lot of scientific research on the subject of horses and grief. PubMed, you let me down. Fine, PubMed hasn’t let me down (well, yes it has, but those issues run deeper). Anyway, turning to Agricola and a search that shames my research librarian’s heart, I discovered the follow article:

Dickinson GE, Hoffmann HC. The difference between dead and away: An exploratory study of behavior change during companion animal euthanasia. J Vet Behav. 2016;15:61-65. doi:10.1016/J.JVEB.2016.08.073

It’s somewhat canine focused, but does address horses. It confirms much of the research is anecdotal. And this was solely survey based instrument, but it’s something. I’ve pulled out some parts of the article (citation above from Journal of Veterinary Behavior — it’s an Elsevier article and likely isn’t available open access… if you’re having difficulty located a copy or accessing it through your library, email me)

Regarding horses’ reactions to euthanasia and death, a 58-year-old male veterinarian said that “I have noticed on many occasions that while leading an infirmed horse to a specific area in the pasture to be euthanized, other horses initially want to follow but are suddenly turned away when the horse to be put down ‘whinnies’ to them.” In the same way, a 54-year-old female veterinarian reported that on 2 occasions when horses were stable mates and very close, following euthanasia of one of the horses, the other horse walked within 12 or so feet of the body and started grazing. This veterinarian believes that “they understand being away and being dead the presence of the body allowed some level of acceptance” (63).

So much truth here. With Hayley, I never walked the boys up to her, but Subi knew. He possibly could see her body from the field. I’m sure he understood (Batt screamed for her, but wasn’t frantic). With Batt, I think he’s missing the closure which is why it’s so much harder. If we lost him at home, I’d have walked him over. If I had more time before the clinic, I’d have brought him over too, but I ran out of time. The acceptance phase helps so much.

Opinion on why animals exhibit behavior changes: “…the most frequent explanation was animal grief and empathy (i.e., veterinarians suggested that animals grieve loss similar to humans and are aware that an animal is ill and/or deceased, and they might even see the illness before humans do), followed by responding to the cues of anxiety, emotionality, and/or grief of the humans in the room…”(63).


Chewy sent me flowers

This is also true. Long term illnesses I think are easier to accept. Hayley vs Batt. The horses knew Hayley was sick. But Batt? Not so much. I’m not convinced he didn’t have gut issues (tumors) which could explain the chronic impactions, but that’s just me guessing here and I don’t think Subi would know THAT. I kick myself for not getting Subi over during the day to see him, but he wasn’t bad yet… And then it spiraled so fast.

Re: human emotions. I’m working so hard on this one to stay neutral and not let my emotions play out around him. It’s hard, but I’m trying. Especially because he is so sensitive. I carry treats instead and teach bad manners but it changes the focus and forces me to focus on something else instead. When leading to field, we’re back to our walk/halt/back/halts again to get brain engagement. Positive note? He’s starting to come to me in the field again when I call his name.

“With 29 years of practicing under my belt, I can sincerely state that I believe a bond exists between animals (both inner-species and cross-species), call me crazy, but I [have] seen genuine empathy in the animal world at times” (63).

1000% true. Not crazy at all.

…it is conceivable that changes in companion animal behavior witnessed by the veterinarians in our sample reflect expressions of grief. However, is an expression of grief appropriate to explain an animal’s change in behavior at the time another animal is being euthanized, or does grief result after death is realized and the playmate or pack member is no longer present? This question betrays a shortcoming in our research results in that it appears some veterinarians conflated explanations for behavior changes at the time of death with behavioral changes that occur after death (64).

In Subi’s case, it’s the loss/lack of his friend’s presence as he wasn’t there, but it’s definitely an interesting question and WHY more tracking should be done.

In humans, fMRI studies have successfully located grief within specific regions of the brain, with different brain regions associated with grief that is evoked by word sversus images (Gündel et al., 2003). If nonhuman animals are reacting to the chemical breakdown of the body or the release of pheromones associated with death, an fMRI study might be able to ascertain the neurobiologic pathway responsible for nonhuman animals’ death awareness (64).

Mostly including this because it would be nice to have SCIENCE to go along with the anecdotal stuff. I work with some faculty who do a lot with fMRI (humans) but it would be interesting on the animal side.

Connecting this all back to Subi. He struggling but after a long (well, 15 minutes which is a long time to talk on the phone with your vet when no one is bleeding) phone call with the vet yesterday, she’s convinced he’s grieving and just needs time. He’s smart enough not to starve himself even if he’ll only eat the bare minimum. We’re going to continue with the reserpine but can at some point switch to an anti anxiety if necessary. Add in ulcergard –1/4 tube (he’s on nexium so likely same difference). And stick to a routine. Possibly offer him Batty’s stall.


No one is interested in the picture me and Jimmy… lol

But, what she also mentioned that I never thought about before, is he doesn’t have the strongest personality. He’s always been the herd leader, but had always had a side kick. At his first boarding barn (even before me), it was the Subi and Ashby show. Then it was Subi supported by Josie. Then Subi and Hayley. Then Subi and Batt. So, he’s always had someone right by his side that he could push around (or push him around) or that worshiped him. Now he’s just him. Jiminy is just…Jimmy. As independent as they come. He doesn’t NEED Subi like everyone else did. Subi was codependent. But, it’s interesting to think about it that way.

So, in the stall each night even though he’d rather stay out, because that’s the routine. Hopefully eventually we’ll get there.

I did compromise and agree that dinner could be fed outside at 6pm. Subi likes that. And breakfast outside too. He likes that as well (though doesn’t eat as well for that meal).

**I have found several more interesting articles through the references but this post is really long… We’ll see if the journal club has a second meeting…**

4 thoughts on “Animals and Grief: A journal club discussion

  1. The quotes above definitely make sense. I think all of us animal lovers know just from observation that there’s a lot more going on than science has explained. I hope you’re both feeling a little better soon.

  2. This is so fascinating. I really like this post, and never actually knew about the “acceptance” of a companion horse being in the same field when a friend is euthanized. I know that while Amber was feeling bad and in a LOT of pain before/after her stifle surgery, Whisper knew it, and very worried about her. It was probably the only time Amber let Whisper “comfort” her. Either way, I’m glad Subi is eating, and I hope the both of you are able to take comfort in each other ❤

  3. In fairness to PubMed this is a difficult topic to set up a controlled experiment for. The other reactions made so much sense to me. When I buried Steele, Irish would hang out as close to his grave as he could. Not eating, just standing and looking depressed. He still does that on occasion but doesn’t look as depressed as before. You were unable to take Subi and that is no ones fault. It just is. I suspect he knows, but I have no evidence. He will need his time, just like you do.

    • In fairness to pubmed, was down (again) and I needed to use pubmed labs which is the beta site which makes my job difficult because our journal linking isn’t there… so I’m annoyed with pubmed this week.

      Yes, I get this is isn’t an easy topic to research but I’m still interested (this article is a bit unfocused and a mess). But my response to issues is research because I’m a librarian. Lol. Recording observational data still isn’t terrible…

      Yes we both need time. I agree.

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