Veterinarians Offer Their Perspectives on Death Awareness in Companion Animals

November 4, 2016
JoAnna Pendergrass, DVM

Dr. Pendergrass received her DVM degree from the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine. Following veterinary school, she completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Emory Universitys Yerkes National Primate Research Center. Dr. Pendergrass is the founder and owner ofJPen Communications, a medical communications company.

In a recent study, veterinarians provided observations and perspectives on behavior changes in companion animals when a nearby animal is euthanized.

For a study recently published in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior, veterinarians provided observations and perspectives on behavior changes in companion animals when a nearby animal is euthanized.

Animal thanatology, the study of death of awareness in animals, is a relatively new area of scientific study. Although there is not yet a large body of formal research on animal thanatology, the idea that animals express loss and grief like humans is well accepted among the public. The scientific community, though, is more skeptical of this idea because most reports and observations on animals’ death awareness are anecdotal; in addition, there is a tendency to anthropomorphize animal behaviors.

A well-publicized example of death awareness in animals was observed with Oscar the cat; Oscar accurately predicted the death of residents in the advanced dementia unit of a nursing home. Questions remain, though, with how animals can detect death. A previous study suggested a keen sense of smell helps animals detect death; an animal may be able to smell chemical changes taking place in organs that are shutting down. In addition, because dogs have an uncanny ability to interpret and respond to human cues, their awareness of death may occur through responding to a human’s reaction to death.

Authors surveyed veterinary members of the South Carolina Veterinary Medical Association in the summer of 2015. The survey questions covered several topics: demographics, the number of animals euthanized each year (per veterinarian), animal species, observations of animal behavior during euthanasia, and explanations of these behaviors. The authors performed statistical analysis using chi-square tests.

Of the 640 veterinarians surveyed, 153 (24%) returned the surveys. Approximately 60% of respondents graduated from veterinary school before 2000. Twenty-four of the 28 US veterinary schools were represented in the survey, with nearly half of the respondents graduating from University of Georgia’s (UGA) College of Veterinary Medicine. The average number of animals euthanized per year, per veterinarian was 117, with about 97% being dogs and cats.

Several veterinarians reported following American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) and American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) recommendations on not performing euthanasia with other animals nearby. For the 54% of veterinarians who observed animal behavior changes during euthanasia, the frequency of observing these behaviors changes was variable, ranging from always (3%) to rarely (22%).

The most commonly reported behavior changes were suddenly becoming quiet (44%) and making unusual sounds (31%). Fewer than 10% of veterinarians reported animals hiding, becoming agitated, or investigating. Slightly more than 60% of veterinarians reported that, compared with other animals, dogs most frequently displayed behavior changes during euthanasia; percentages were markedly smaller for veterinarians reporting horses (8%) and cats (5%) as being most likely to display behavior changes.

Explanations varied as to why animals change their behavior during euthanasia. The most frequent explanation, offered by 24% of veterinarians, was animal grief and empathy (ie, grief similar to human grief, awareness of illness and/or death). Other explanations included response to changes in the physical/emotional state of the euthanized animal, fear and/or anxiety with the euthanasia, and instinct.

In the published study, the authors included responses to open-ended survey questions regarding observed animal behavior changes:

  • “Horses seem concerned about what is going on and will often stand by the deceased for a while afterward.”
  • “I have quite often seen the other animals come to greet or ‘say goodbye’ to the one being euthanized.”
  • “I feel that animals can sense what is about to happen/is happening [referring to the euthanasia] …I definitely believe they understand death and feel loss.”

The authors performed chi-square testing to determine whether differences in demographic data (age, sex, veterinary school) played a role in whether a veterinarian observed animal behavior changes during euthanasia. The authors did not find statistically significant differences when analyzing age and sex differences, nor when comparing graduates from UGA’s veterinary school with those who graduated from the other veterinary schools represented in the survey.

The study results suggest veterinarians share the same belief as the public regarding death awareness in animals. However, some of the responding veterinarians may have blended animal behavior changes observed during euthanasia with those occurring after death; the authors acknowledged this as a possible shortcoming of the results.

The authors caution against anthropomorphizing death awareness in animals. To circumvent projecting human emotions onto animals, they suggested using functional MRI to determine if there are neurobiologic pathways that regulate death awareness in animals.

Dr. JoAnna Pendergrass received her doctorate in veterinary medicine from the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine. Following veterinary school, she completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Emory University’s Yerkes National Primate Research Center. Dr. Pendergrass is the founder and owner of JPen Communications, LLC.