Animal Welfare 3

Research title:

Quantitative evaluation of grief-like responses in pet dogs to promote physiological and emotional wellbeing after the loss of a companion dog 

Tutor: Federica Pirrone


Contact details

Dipartimento di Medicina Veterinaria

Università degli Studi di Milano

via Celoria, 10 - 20133 Milano

Tel. +39 0250318129

Fax +39 0250318135



State of the art 

In humans, bereavement is a natural event due to the loss of a loved person through death (Alderton, 2011). Approximately 10-22% of bereaved people experience deleterious forms of distress (McCann et al., 2014). When an animal dies, that individual’s mate, relatives, or friends might also express grief (King, 2013). Although it is widely reported in big-brained mammals that have memories like great apes, whales, dolphins (Archer, 1999), there is no scientific evidence on pet dog grief yet (Walker, 2016). According to Bekoff (2007), dogs might display grief as a result of a close relationship, which dogs may form due to their highly social nature. Thus, as the "attachment theory" contributes to explain the separation anxiety or distress which occur when an animal is separated from an attachment figure (Bowlby, 1969; Topal et al.,1998), it could also explain grief among dogs. Changes in the survivor’s patterns of  behaviour are key criteria commonly considered for defining grief among animals (King, 2016). Animal studies have also shown the alterations of brain neurotransmitters and neuroendocrine factors (e.g., cortisol) under the influence of peer loss (Bosch et al., 2008; Isovich et al., 2001). Grief is a secondary emotion (Konok, 2015) and with an understanding of what grief is in dogs we could fully recognize these animals’ emotional needs and help them to keep wellbeing. This is potentially a major welfare issue, considering the relatively high number of dogs who live with at least another companion dog (Pirrone et al., 2015) and are therefore at risk to experience the loss of a close conspecific.



Aims of the project

The present project aims to understand the evidence base of canine mourning and promote implementation of new rationally-based strategies aimed to improve wellbeing and resilience for both the individual dog and the family system, especially in the early stages that follow death, where in humans the disabling consequences have been more strongly noticed. We will create a research model based on a grid of quantitative measurable outcomes, which reliably reflect and translate the actual state (i.e. physical, emotional) of an individual into an objective description that can be delivered and agreed upon by different observers. This overall aim is detailed by two specific aims:

Specific aim 1 (duration: 12 months): identification and evaluation of factors associated with the potential exhibition of stress and/or anxiety in response to the death of a peer.

Specific aim 2 (duration: 18 months): identification and quantification of stress and/or anxiety-related responses in dogs after the loss of a companion conspecific. Actions include the design and implementation of a matched case-control study focusing on the effects of the death of a companion dog in a conspecific and his owner. The goals of the project address the broad range of weaknesses identified as causes for the criticism against grief among companion pet dogs.


Recent publications of the tutor in the field 

1. Federica Pirrone, Ludovica Pierantoni, Giovanni Quintavalle Pastorino, Mariangela Albertini. Owner-reported aggressive behavior towards familiar people may be a more prominent occurrence in pet shop-traded dogs. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research 2016; 11:13–17.

2. F. Pirrone, M. Albertini, S.M. Mazzola, L. Pierantoni, F. Bavagnoli, D. Vigo. Correlation between the size of companion dogs and the profile of the owner : a cross-sectional study in Italy. Dog Behavior 2015, 1(2): 32-43.

3. Pirrone, F., Pierantoni, L., Mazzola, S.M., Vigo, D., Albertini, M. Owner and Animal Factors Predict the Incidence of, and Owner Reaction Towards, Problem Behaviors in Companion Dogs. Journal of Veterinary Behavior Clinical: Applications and Research 2015; 10(4): 295–301.

4. Pierantoni L, Albertini M and Pirrone F. Prevalence of owner-reported behaviours in dogs separated from the litters at two different ages. Veterinary Record 2011; 169(18): 468-473.

5. C.V. Pastore, F. Pirrone, F. Balzarotti, M. Faustini, L. Pierantoni, M. Albertini. Evaluation of physiological and behavioral stress-dependent parameters in agility dogs. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research 2011; 6(3): 188-194.