Study reveals emotional turmoil experienced after dog theft is like that of a caregiver losing a child

Media Relations Team, 26 April 2024

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Female with long fair hair with her back to camera holding a small brown dog in her arms, with the dog's facing the camera over her shoulder

A new study led by a UWE Bristol researcher has revealed that emotional turmoil experienced by dog owners after their pet has been stolen is like/ akin to that of losing a loved one such as a caregiver losing their child.

The findings empirically support the notions that the ‘owner’ or guardian roles and relationships equate to familial relationships and, when faced with the theft of their pet, owners feel a similar sense of disenfranchised grief and ambiguous loss.

In the study, conducted by UWE Bristol’s Dr Lindsey Roberts alongside a psychologist from a health trust, some participants felt the loss was more intense than the death of a friend or relative owing to the closeness of the human-animal bond they had with their pet that in some cases, they did not have with some family members.

The researchers suggest sadness/sorrow, despair and hopelessness, and emotional pain and/or numbness, coupled with anxiety was consistently reported in the study; the same emotional reactions evident at the death of human loved ones but that the emotions were distinct owing to the difference in how society views the death of people versus our beloved companion animals or ‘pets’.

The psychological distress experienced was often made worse by a lack of understanding of how much an animal companion can mean to someone, and that dog theft laws often only consider dogs as stolen property in the same way as having a material possession such as bicycle stolen, because of this police are limited in the support they can offer too.

The situation can be made worse by the manner the dog was stolen too – either through physical force or entering someone’s own home or property without consent.

The researchers on the study – published in the academic journal Animal-Human Interactions – say that given the evidence of similar grief and coping markers to the loss of loved ones and children, dog owners are susceptible to developing challenges and delays processing their grief such as post traumatic stress disorder and post grief disorder, as there is a real risk of having no closure from the event, particularly if the dog is never returned home or found deceased.

The researchers said the study also demonstrates that dog owners cope just as they would when missing a human family member has gone missing or passed but propose social media as a way of continuing the search for their pet, adapting to the new situation by reaching out to those in a similar situation, retaining hope, and/or attempting to cope with their grief and adjust to new circumstances without their dog.

Psychological research, the researchers say, should aim to inform best-practice resources providing suitable help managing grief, social disenfranchisement, and other psychological or physiological consequences of this trauma.

Dr Roberts, Senior Lecturer at UWE Bristol and Programme Lead for the MSc Health Psychology course, said, “This research was launched when my friends’ dog, Lola, was stolen from under her nose in her back garden by someone we presume was posing as a delivery driver. The distress rocked everyone, and I felt more had to be done to support those who were having their dogs stolen.

“We interviewed people who had experienced theft, and we have since developed a questionnaire that aims to highlight the areas people need most support in coping with the theft of their dogs to help alleviate suffering.”

Dr Roberts, a human-animal bond expert, reports that more research in this area is already underway to support people.

She said: “Our next study has been completed to test the first Dog Theft Impact Scale and we hope it will be published too so we can launch our questionnaire as a support tool for anyone affected by the devasting effects of dog theft. We will continue to work with Dog Lost and the pet loss service offered by the Blue Cross to support those who need help after this crime.

“We are already working with Dr Dan Allen at Keele University, who has carried out extensive work exploring how animals are more-than-property and has advocated for pet theft reform (”

In the UK alone, there are 13 million dog owners. Having a pet has been found to improve physiological and psychological wellbeing – correlating to reduced cardiovascular mortality, depression, and stress levels. Dogs are a source of comfort to many, particularly for those who without them, would experience significant loneliness.

The researchers highlight how having a dog buffered against the negative impact of loneliness experienced during the Covid-19 lockdowns in the UK as dogs give people a reason to leave the house for walks, exercise and spend time in nature.

Sadly, the result of many more people raising dogs in this time prompted a spike in breeding, a rise in the cost of puppies for sale and theft during the pandemic. While 3.2 million pets were bought during lockdown, there were also over 2,000 reports of dogs stolen – a rise in dog theft by 250 per cent pre-Covid.

Fellow researcher on the study Akaanksha Venkatramanan, an Assistant Psychologist at Berkshire Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust, said: “This study explored the experiences and needs of dog-guardians when faced with dog theft and the results validated an overlap of characteristics between human and non-human relationships.

“It provides evidence of the intense love of dogs and the parental accountability of guardians. A consequent overlap of emotional distress at the loss of this relationship is also shown, providing empirical evidence to formulate psychological and legal support to this, currently disenfranchised, grief experience.”

Collectively, this study and further research could contribute towards a significant policy change in law enforcement protocols to make it consistently supportive for victims by introducing harsher penal codes for people who steal companion animals to deter criminals and help stamp out the prevalence altogether.

Anyone affected by dog theft or bereavement can find support at Dog Lost or Blue Cross.

The full academic paper has been published by CABI.

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