Do Your Pets Have Emotions? Science Has Weighed In On Whether Your Puppy Is As Happy As It Looks

Have you ever looked deep into your beloved pet dog, cat or rabbit's eyes (possibly while avoiding their slobber, scratches or confused nibblings) and wondered aloud, "What are you feeling right now?" Admittedly this is the sort of behavior that usually only happens to pet owners when they're either very philosophical or very drunk. And that's because most people who spend a lot of time with one particular animal believe they have a good handle on its personality. A key part of that is the fundamental (often unshakeable) belief that animals have emotions similar to our own. But is this true?

It's not a new question, and it's one that has been argued about for a very long time. Whether animals have consciousness (as opposed to spending their lives just wandering around obeying unconscious instincts and evolutionary genetic commands) is a key question in the animal rights debate. But the line between consciousness and emotions is a complex one, and some theorists have wondered: are we putting our own experiences onto creatures that don't experience feelings like we do? 

It can be hard to watch videos of cows playing in a field after being cooped up all winter and not think they're feeling joy. But while that may be exactly what we need to think, it might not actually be the truth. So get your cat, put your puppy in your pocket, and read on to discover the truth about animals and their emotions. 

Why Do We Want To Believe Our Pets Have Emotions?

As a lifelong animal lover, the idea that pets and animals have human-style emotions is a familiar one. Decoding a pet's emotions — like happiness, sadness, hope, fear, grief or alarm — is one of the primary joys of having one. What the hell does Mr. Tiddles want, and why is he making that yowling noise at my computer? And the briefest delve into the internet — which was, let's face it, basically designed to spread cat pictures — indicates that this tendency to give human emotions to other animals is a widespread human trait.

While scholar Catherine Osborne has argued that the philosophy of animal rights actually has a long history in Western thought, right back to Aristotle and Plato, many major thinkers throughout history thought animals had about as many emotions as a table. Descartes thought animals were entirely motivated by reflexes, and it wasn't until Darwin's time that the idea of animal consciousness really took root. 

Why do we want to believe that pets have emotions? For one, it's easier to interpret behavior according to patterns we already know, like emotions, than try to learn to understand behaviors motivated by something else. It's also likely because emotion is part of the world of bonding and love — and on a basic level, we want our pets to love us. 

What Does Having Emotions Really Mean?

Defining what "having an emotion" means is actually trickier than it seems. We can talk about what feeling sad does to the body, or why smiling is a sign of happiness across many cultures, but the nitty-gritty of emotional intelligence is more complex. According to Dr. Paul Thagard, writing in Psychology Today, emotions are "judgments about the extent that the current situation meets your goals" — frustration if your goals aren't being met, happiness if they are — plus an awareness of how your body feels and processes that information, like a raised heart rate. 

And how do you know your emotions are there? Professor Marian Stamp Dawkins has a good working definition of how emotions show up in humans in her 2000 paper, "Animal Minds And Animal Emotions". In her definition, emotions have three sides: the cognitive/verbal, where people can talk about their feelings; the autonomic, which is how the body reacts to emotions; and the behavioral, which is how we show emotions with our faces and changes in behavior. 

You might have seen the problem by now. Even if we can track the autonomic and behavioral changes in animals, we can't get them to talk about it. And for some thinkers, that means we'll never really know what their "feelings" are like.

How Do We Know If An Animal Has Emotions?

In his new book Anxious, neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux argues that emotions actually distinguish us from the remainder of the animal kingdom, because we can't actually prove that animals have any. As a review of his book in Nature explains, it's not enough just to see behavior that might indicate a dog or cat is happy or sad; you also have to know that the behavior can't be explained by "processes that work non-consciously." Because we can't actually talk to our animals and have them directly link their experiences and expressions to an emotion, we can't be fully sure.

But other scientists think the evidence is pretty clear, even without landing an interview with Fido. It's been clear that animals possess sentience  — meaning that they are aware in a way that trees or plants aren't, and are able to make choices and express their preferences for certain things — for a long time. This is why cats can choose to get up and move to a warmer spot on the kitchen floor, and why puppies can choose to chase that ball and fall on their faces rather than ignoring it. This is a fairly recent perspective, and one with philosophical implications — preference also means that animals can suffer and experience pain, and for a considerable part of human history, it was more convenient for us to think that they were just behaving "instinctively," obeying unconscious urges, rather than making conscious choices. Whether sentience implies emotion, though, is another story. 

Expert Jonathan Balcombe provided a list of studies to LiveScience that demonstrate that animals from rats to lizards appear to have "emotional" responses to things, from delight to fear, that show in their bodies. It's possible, according to one of the studies he cites, to make animals feel more optimistic or pessimistic about their futures and lives, while another demonstrates that rats heighten their body temperature when handled by somebody they don't know. They seem to be making judgement calls about whether things in their lives meet their goals or not. 

But, as we've seen, there's a step between animals making judgements, and how they feel and express that pleasure. Do dogs experience "happiness" in the same way that we might describe that emotion when they're thrown a ball? And does it really matter? 

Stamp Dawkins is one of the critics who accuse us of too easily "anthropomorphising" animals by attributing emotions to their consciousness. But she's also critical of the idea that all animals are conscious, and wants us to understand animal rights in terms of their wants and needs, because it's more philosophically airtight than speculating about their "happiness".  

So Is Your Pet's Happiness A Myth? 

Whether you believe animals can feel happiness depends on how much trust you place in behavior as a demonstration of emotions, and how you define emotions in general. If a dog shows all the physical signs of being extremely pleased when something happens, does it matter to you if he can't talk to you about it, might not be conscious of it like you would be and may not be able to psychologically reflect on his happiness? 

The common reaction is probably "no." If the signs are there, why not interpret them in ways that seem to make sense? But this impulse may not be allowing for animals to have a unique emotional life of their own, which could differ radically from our own human understandings of hope, sadness, happiness and so on.

In Carl Safina's book Beyond Words: What Animals Think And Feel, he warns: "Elephants act joyful in the same situations that make us joyful... So we assume they feel the way we feel. But beware of assumptions!" Later, he notes, "Elephants are not us. They are themselves." Humans are not the only animals to have consciousness, and our emotions may not be the only kind around. Not by a long shot.

Images: Andre Spieker/ Unsplash; Giphy (4)

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