Managing grief responses

Managing grief responses

Bereavement could deteriorate the health of your horses
Oct 01, 2004

Ben and Doc had been together for a long time. They were born in the same area, lived together and actually worked side by side for many years. They retired to the same place and had been spending their elderly days quietly. But when Doc became ill and then quickly died, Ben was devastated. He stopped eating, didn't want to move around much or to do any of the things that had occupied his previous days. He wouldn't interact with anyone around him, and he became severely withdrawn. Without his friend to do things with, he became inactive and started losing weight and muscle condition. His arthritis, which had been doing well, became worse. Not eating enough began to weaken his energy and his immune system. He started to become anemic and dehydrated and showed all the signs of physical and psychological depression.

This is not an unusual scenario, and the loss of a close friend or a loved one can be seriously stressing to people, especially to the elderly. But Ben and Doc are horses. While the "stress of loss" is not commonly addressed in equine veterinary medicine, it still can be a very real problem and a cause of concern to equine clients.

Instinct vs. emotion

Loss and bereavement is more commonly dealt with as it applies to the feelings our clients have after losing a pet. Veterinarians have become so aware of their special role in this potentially devastating event that some clinics and veterinary schools now have grief counselors. There are many reference sources, support groups and even "pet loss" chat rooms to help people deal with this trauma.

But there is almost nothing written and virtually no research, surprisingly, dealing with the reaction of animals to the loss of a partner or close herd mate. Animal behaviorists caution that it is not always correct to think and speak anthropomorphically (giving human feelings and characteristics to animals,) but owners and trainers say they can tell when a horse is feeling happy, playful, contented, angry, bored, tired, upset or any number of other emotions. And most veterinarians, even if they do not use these terms, recognize similar behavioral expressions. In cases like Ben and Doc, the surviving horse often shows signs of classical depression and, in the words of most of our clients, acts sad.

However, there may be more science to the way animals seem to act, and Dr. Sharon Crowell-Davis, DVM, Ph.D. and board certified animal behaviorist at the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine, assures us that these interpretative evaluations of how animals "feel" in response to certain situations are fairly accurate.

"The use of PET scans (positron emission tomography) provide researchers with an evaluation of mental states based on brain activity and neurochemical changes noted in response to specific stimuli," Crowell-Davis explains.

A person is presented with a stimulus that causes them to be happy, for instance, and the PET scan records his or her pattern of brain activity and chemical changes that occur in the brain during that time period. Additionally, certain drugs can be given that produce specific feelings, and the resultant brain activity and chemistry can be recorded.

"When animals are recorded showing the same patterns of brain activity and the same brain chemical changes that correspond to a particular human emotion or mood state, it would not be logical of us to assume that they are not experiencing similar feelings," Crowell-Davis says.

Clinical concerns Based on how closely some horses correspond to the classical signs of clinical depression and on how intense the individual responses can be, the loss of a close companion is felt as sadness by horses, and they certainly can express grief.

While it is not known how animals interpret or understand death, many owners and veterinarians say there is some form of comprehension. When one of a pair of horses dies, the remaining horse might be severely affected or might show little response.

Dr. K. Houpt, DVM, Ph.D., physiologist and animal behaviorist at the New York State College of Veterinary Medicine at Cornell University, points out that there is a tremendous variation in the amount of attachment shown by individual horses.

"Some horses tend to form stronger and more numerous 'friendships', " he says. In the attachment shown for a particular individual, "a specific horse may be extremely bonded to one other horse and yet exhibit no concern for other horses in the same group."