My dog is not a child substitute. At least, that’s what his piano teacher says. ~ Rita Rudner
Growing up, I shared a good portion of my childhood with our family’s little black and white tuxedo cat, Carla. Although Carla had a reputation for being notoriously aloof with strangers, she was fiercely loyal to me, my brothers and sisters.
Back in the days when most family cats went outside, Carla walked my sister and me to the school bus stop each morning. She would sit calmly on the curb until the bus had safely picked us up; only then would she return home. Even more amazingly, every day at 3:00pm when our school bus rounded the corner on our street, without fail, there was Carla….sitting on the curb waiting, where she then walked beside us until we got home.
Carla was extremely intelligent, and she quickly learned to open unlocked doors by turning doorknobs. This gave her unrestricted access to our bedrooms at all times, where she frequently spent nights curled up next to us while we slept.
One day, in the midst of an episode of pre-teen angst (I was, after all, an 11-year old girl), I was crying in my bedroom. I heard the door open, and within seconds, Carla was on the bed next to me. I’ll never forget the look of utter distress and concern on her face as she climbed up onto my chest, reached up with one paw to touch my cheek, then proceeded to gently lick the tears off my face.
This would have been amazing in itself if it had only happened once. But after that first incident, this comfort ritual took place between us many times over the years. And each time it happened, afterwards Carla would stay right beside me until she was certain that the crying had stopped for good.
The Great Debate
So, do our pets really experience emotion? After many years, the answer to that question is still hotly debated in the scientific community.
Scientists argue that humans like to anthropomorphize their pets (the definition of anthropomorphism is “the attribution of human characteristics to animals or objects”). They say we tend to interpret animals’ instinctive behaviors according to our own range of emotions, and that we give them credit for feelings they can’t possibly have.
However, I believe when it comes to the question of whether animals are capable of both experiencing and demonstrating true emotion, most (if not all) pet parents stand unequivocally on the side of “Yes”.
And I couldn’t agree more. Here’s why.
Science Backs It Up
According to an article written for Psychology Today by Dr. Stanley Coren, Professor of Psychology at the University of British Columbia, dogs possess all the same brain structures that produce emotions in humans. Dogs also produce the same hormones (including oxytocin, the hormone associated with human feelings of love and affection), and experience the same chemical changes that humans do during emotional states.
Additionally, Marc Bekoff, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, states that:
- Emotions have evolved in many different species as adaptations to permit animals to socially bond with one another.
- All mammals share neuroanatomical structures (such as the brain’s amygdala) and neurochemical pathways in the brain’s limbic system that are necessary for experiencing emotion.
- Elephants possess a huge hippocampus (a brain structure in the limbic system important in processing emotions), and can suffer from both psychological flashbacks and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Even Charles Darwin’s well-accepted ideas about evolution argue strongly for the presence of animal emotions, empathy and moral behavior.
And wouldn’t the existence of emotions in animals also help explain the presence of behavioral problems like nervousness, aggression, and excessive grooming?
The Emotional Lives of Dogs
Dr. Stanley Coren wrote a fascinating article about the development of emotions in both humans and dogs. Dr. Coren states that humans are born with only one emotion – excitement. All other emotions develop between the ages of birth and 5 years.
Researchers have discovered that the mind of a dog is roughly equivalent to that of a 2 ½ -year old human – and that includes emotions. According to these studies, dogs are able to experience the same emotions as those of a human toddler, including:
Interestingly, since current research shows that emotional development in dogs stops at a stage roughly equivalent to that of a 2 ½ -year old human child, researchers believe that dogs are incapable of experiencing the more complex social emotions that appear after the age of 3 years in humans, including:
So our dogs don’t really feel guilty whenever they do something we don’t like?
Dr. Coren sums it up:
Now many people might argue that they have seen evidence which indicates that their dog is capable of experiencing guilt. The usual situation is where you come home and your dog starts slinking around and showing discomfort, and you then find that he or she has left a smelly brown deposit on your kitchen floor. It is natural to conclude that the dog was acting in a way that shows that it is feeling guilty about its transgression. However this is not guilt, but simply the more basic emotion of fear. The dog has learned that when you appear and his droppings are visible on the floor, bad things happen to him. What you see is his fear of punishment—he will never feel guilt.
So what does this mean for those of us who live with, and interact with dogs? The good news is that you can feel free to dress your dog in that silly costume for a party. He will not feel shame, regardless how ridiculous he looks. He will also not feel pride at winning a prize at a dog show or an obedience competition. However your dog can still feel love for you, and contentment when you are around, and aren’t these the emotions we truly value?
Real Life Examples
Although scientific research indicates otherwise, there are still those, even within the pet community, who say that animals simply react to the energy and the emotions of the people around them, and that their behaviors are purely based on instinct meant to ensure the survival of the species.
I disagree with that assessment…strongly.
There are many well-known cases of cats forming such strong attachments to their human caregivers that when the person left for an extended period of time (or passed away), these cats showed unmistakable signs of distress. They went into hiding, refusing to eat or drink. Some otherwise perfectly healthy cats actually stopped functioning to the point of passing away themselves shortly after their caregiver’s death.
Less dramatically, many cat guardians say their cats know when they are sick or upset and will seek them out to provide comfort, just as Carla did for me. Every cat parent knows that if cats truly did care only for themselves, they would keep their distance until their caregiver did something that was more inclined to please them.
Marc Bekoff may have said it best:
No matter what we call it, researchers agree that animals and humans share many traits, including emotions. Thus, we’re not inserting something human into animals; rather, we’re identifying commonalities and then using human language to communicate what we observe. Being anthropomorphic is doing what’s natural and necessary to understand animal emotions.
So give your pet a great big kiss today, knowing that he not only feels your love for him, but it’s reciprocated many times over. And according to Dr. Coren, even if you do it in public, you don’t have to worry about him being embarrassed. 🙂
So what do you think – do animals truly have emotions? Or do you think they are just acting on instinct? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!