It's a horrifying question, and one that has plagued mankind since the dawn of Google: If you died in your home, would your dog eat you?
We've covered whether your cat would eat you, and the answer is "probably, if they were starving." But what about our canine companions? They're man's best friend ... right? Right?
Unfortunately, writer Erika Engelhaupt at National Geographic has some hideous news. Her article analyzes the tiny bit of existing data about whether our dogs would eat us, and the conclusions aren't heartening.
The article begins with a 1997 case involving a man who had been dead for 45 minutes when his German shepherd started consuming his face. Worse, the dog had a half-full bowl of dog food that he didn't eat before going for his owner's face.
Engelhaupt points out that no one actually tracks the frequency of pets consuming their deceased owners, so it's difficult to answer these questions definitively. However, she says, "dozens of such case reports appear in forensic science journals over the last 20 years or so."
In the National Geographic article, Stanley Coren, a psychologist who has written extensively about dogs, says that in some cases, it's a clear case of survival. "Dogs are descended from wolves," he says. "If ... owner dies and there's no source of food ... they're going to take whatever flesh is around."
That makes sense, but what about the aforementioned face-eating German shepherd? In a 2015 case study, researchers found that in 24 percent of cases, less than a day had passed before the partially eaten body of a dog owner was found. And some of those dogs had access to their regular dog food.
Moreover, their scavenging pattern didn't match patterns that occur in the wild. When dogs ate their dead owners, 73 percent of cases involved bites to the face, and only 15 percent had bites to the abdomen. This pattern is in stark contrast to wild canines that scavenge outdoors. These canines go for the chest and abdomen, which have much more nutrient-rich organs. Only 10 percent of these cases involved bites or wounds to the heads.
Why would they do this? Markus Rothschild, the forensic examiner in the 1997 German Shepherd case, writes in his report that the dog might be trying to first help the unconscious owner by nudging them or licking them. "But when this fails to produce any results," Rothschild writes, "the behavior of the animal can become more frantic and in a state of panic, can lead to biting." Though the dog may not have set out to eat their owner, the bite may stimulate hunger, leading to ... well, you get the idea.
Beyond that, we really don't have a good explanation for this behavior. Because the data is so sparse, it's difficult to reach any definitive conclusion.
But what should we do with the data we do have? Forensic anthropologist Carolyn Rando of University College London says your best best is having friends and neighbors who will check on you if something seems amiss. Like so many things, the only solution is to surround yourself with friends and hope for the best.