Dog Theft Triggers Grief Akin to Losing a Child, Study Finds

A recent study published in the journal Animal-Human Interactions has revealed that the emotional turmoil experienced by dog owners after their pet has been stolen is comparable to that of losing a loved one, such as a caregiver losing their child. The findings provide empirical evidence that the bond between dogs and their owners is akin to familial relationships, and when faced with pet theft, owners experience a similar sense of disenfranchised grief and ambiguous loss.

Intense Emotional Distress and Lack of Closure

Researchers Akaanksha Venkatramanan and Dr Lindsey Roberts found that sadness, despair, hopelessness, and emotional pain were consistently reported by participants in the study. These emotional reactions are similar to those experienced after the death of human loved ones, but the emotions were distinct due to societal differences in how the death of people and beloved companion animals are viewed.

The psychological distress experienced by dog owners was often exacerbated by a lack of understanding from others about the depth of the human-animal bond. Additionally, dog theft laws often treat dogs as stolen property, similar to a material possession like a bicycle, limiting the support that law enforcement can provide.

Coping Strategies and the Need for Support

The study demonstrates that dog owners cope with pet theft in ways similar to how they would when a human family member goes missing or passes away. Social media has emerged as a means for owners to continue searching for their lost pets, adapt to the new situation, and reach out to others in similar circumstances.

Ms Venkatramanan, an Assistant Psychologist at Berkshire Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust, emphasized the need for psychological and legal support for this currently disenfranchised grief experience. The intense love for dogs and the parental accountability of guardians have been validated by the study, providing evidence of the overlap in emotional distress when this relationship is lost.

Dr Roberts, a human-animal bond expert and Senior Lecturer at the University of the West of England (UWE), launched the research after her friends’ dog, Lola, was stolen. She and her colleagues are working on developing a “Dog Theft Impact Scale (DTIS)” to help support those affected by the devastating effects of dog theft.

The researchers hope that their work, along with further research, could contribute to significant policy changes in law enforcement protocols, making them more supportive of victims and introducing harsher penalties for those who steal companion animals.



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