Speaking up for those who can’t: Social pain and welfare implications for domestic dogs



Dogs are undoubtedly one of the UK’s favourite pets. They occupy our parks, homes, even our furniture. For animals we share so much of our lives with, do we understand their needs as well as we think?

Over the years there has been much debate over the emotional capabilities of dogs, with evidence now suggesting they experience complex human-like emotions including jealousy, guilt and social pain. Social pain is a type of emotional pain associated with the perceived weakening of one’s social bonds. This type of pain encompasses the feelings of grief after loss, of loneliness when one is isolated from others and of distress when a bonded companions feelings appear to be weakening. For domestic dogs, social pain is experienced when bonds with humans are threatened, and can arise through a number of events:

  • Social Isolation (loneliness)

-Objective social isolation- Isolation from all others, this is the same as being alone. Dogs that are left alone for long periods of time experience this.

-Perceived social isolation- A relative deficiency of desired social relationships. A person could be in a crowd but still feel lonely because none of the people they are with fulfil their desire for meaningful relationships. Dogs experience this too- they can be with other people but do not feel satisfied until they are in the company of their bonded companion. Dogs may also experience this when they are rehomed and their original companion is no longer in their life

  • Social exclusion- Excluding animals from social activities that promote bonding can cause distress and social pain.


  • Social rejection- Withdrawing attention from dogs, either as a form of punishment of neglectful care can lead to social pain

The function of social pain

Social pain functions in the same way physical pain does- it warns the body of a danger, in this case the danger being the loss of social relationships that promote survival and reproductions. Being together provides everything from food, to mates to protection from predators. A further advantage of staying together lies in the concept of stress buffering. Research has shown in many different social animals that being with companions helps to reduce the level of stress experienced when placed in a stressful environment. In social animals, social pain serves to ensure these benefits are protected by forcing animals to try and strengthen their social bonds.

The damage of social pain

Research has shown that there is an overlap in the part of the brain that responds to emotional and physical pain. Studies have shown that when given the choice, animals will choose to endure physical pain over emotional pain. The disruption of social bonds is also thought to weaken the physical health of rescue dogs and contribute to skin conditions.

Enhanced sensitivity to social pain

Domestic dogs may be more sensitive to social pain than other social animals because of domestication and selective breeding regimes. Just like dogs have been selectively bred to enhance particular physical traits, they have also been selected to have a strong attachment to humans in order to make them optimum pets. This means that dogs have a greater ability to form strong attachments with humans but feel more pain when they are denied human companionship.  It is noteworthy that there is some variation in sensitivity across the different breeds.

Welfare implications of enhanced sensitivity to social pain

  • Social deprivation as a punishment is no more humane than physical punishment
  • Adequate social interaction should be considered as vital as food shelter and water. Failure to provide this can be classed neglectful
  • Rehoming dogs causes serious distress due to the bonds that have been built
  • Selective breeding is continuing to enhance a trait in dogs which enables them to have stronger bonds with humans but also puts them in greater anguish when they are denied human companionship


  • Mcmillan, F.D. (2016) The psychobiology of social pain: Evidence for a neurocognitive overlap with physical pain and welfare implications for social animals with special attention to the domestic dog (Canis familiaris)

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