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Do Animals Have Emotions?
Of course they do


One of the hottest questions in the study of animal behavior is, “Do animals have emotions?” And the simple and correct answer is, “Of course they do.” Just look at them, listen to them and, if you dare, smell the odors that pour out when they interact with friends and foes. Look at their faces, tails, bodies and, most importantly, their eyes. What we see on the outside tells us a lot about what’s happening inside animals’ heads and hearts. Animal emotions aren’t all that mysterious.

When I first began my studies three decades ago—asking the question, “What does it feel like to be a dog or a wolf?”—researchers were almost all skeptics who spent their time wondering if dogs, cats, chimpanzees and other animals felt anything. Since feelings don’t fit under a microscope, these scientists usually didn’t find any, and, as I like to say, I’m glad I wasn’t their dog!

But now there are far fewer skeptics; prestigious scientific journals publish essays on joy in rats, grief in elephants and empathy in mice and no one blinks. The question of real importance is not whether animals have emotions, but why animal emotions have evolved. Simply put, emotions have evolved as adaptations in numerous species. They serve as a social glue to bond animals with one another and also catalyze and regulate a wide variety of social encounters among friends and foes.

Emotions permit animals to behave adaptively and flexibly, using various behavior patterns in a wide variety of venues. Research has shown that mice are empathic rodents, but it turns out they’re fun-loving as well. We also read accounts of pleasure-seeking iguanas; amorous whales; angry baboons; elephants who suffer from psychological flashbacks and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD—elephants have a huge hippocampus, a brain structure in the limbic system that’s important in processing emotions); grieving otters, magpies and donkeys; sentient fish; and a sighted dog who serves as a “seeing-eye dog” for his blind canine buddy. Today, the paradigm has shifted to such an extent that the burden of “proof” now falls on those who still argue that animals don’t experience emotions.

Many researchers also recognize that we must be anthropomorphic (attribute human traits to animals) when we discuss animal emotions, but that if we do it carefully, we can still give due consideration to the animals’ points of view. 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.

We might expect to find close, enduring and endearing emotional relationships between members of the same species, but improbable relationships also occur between animals of wildly different species, even between animals who are normally predator and prey! Such is the case for Aochan, a rat snake, who befriended a dwarf hamster named Gohan at Tokyo’s Mutsugoro Okoku Zoo, and a lioness in northern Kenya who adopted a baby oryx (usually an appetizer before a larger meal) on five different occasions.

It’s bad biology to argue against the existence of animal emotions. Scientific research in evolutionary biology, cognitive ethology (the study of animal minds) and social neuroscience support the view that numerous and diverse animals have rich and deep emotional lives. (Here I focus on mammals, although there are data showing that birds and perhaps fish experience various emotions as well as pain and suffering.)

Charles Darwin’s well-accepted ideas about evolutionary continuity—that differences among species are differences in degree rather than kind—argue strongly for the presence of animal emotions, empathy and moral behavior. Continuity allows us to connect the “evolutionary dots” among different species to highlight similarities in evolved traits, including individual feelings and passions. All mammals (including humans) share neuroanatomical structures, such as the amygdala and neurochemical pathways in the limbic system that are important for feelings.



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Submitted by Labrador Retriever | November 7 2009 |

I have a Labrador Retriever named bear one of the best dogs I have ever been a part of. My father came over and visited one day and has always liked bear and asked if he could take her home. Noing that I did not want to do this but how do you tell your dad no? So he took her home called me two days later stating she would not eat and barked all night long.I knew she must have been homesick so he brung her back home and she eats like a hog and rarely barks. So homesick was the problem and I am glad because I wanted her to stay home anyway.

Submitted by Arthur | January 5 2010 |

All mammals, including dogs, have a "pleasure center" in their brains that is stimulated by dopamine, the chemical that regulates feelings of happiness. For example, when a dog is playing fetch, dopamine is released in the pleasure center and the dog is "happy." Since humans have similar brain chemistry, can we assume that dogs and humans are much more alike emotionally than previously thought?

"If we moved our dogs to our neighbor's house and that neighbor gave the dogs as much as we gave them and in the same motivational forms, I believe our dogs would adapt to the new life and would become as loyal to the neighbor as they were to us."

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Submitted by BrianL | February 24 2011 |

I once had a dog you could certainly said would start to cry if we would live the house for a certain period (vacation, work relocation, etc) and leave him with a friend or relative. I'm positively sure most mammals have emotions, especially dogs. Well, at least mine had, and it was a very beautiful black German shepherd that I'll be proud of till the end of my life.

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Submitted by Oliver Glory | January 31 2011 |

What I think is strange is the fact that some animals such as dogs and cats have limbic emotions, but insects, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish, do not. The thing I'm interested in is their emotional evoloutions.

Submitted by David Fernandez | October 30 2011 |

You wrote: "The thing I'm interested is in their emotional evolutions"
I would say that "The thing you could be interested is in their evolution that ended in what we know as emotions in humans"
At what step (from unicellular to man) emotions appeared in living organisms?
It is now thoguht that the evolution of man is more of a psychological evolution rather than structural.
Ashley Montagu said that humans do not respond to instincts but to intelligence and reasoning.
Have you ever thought that; if responding to instincts "evolved" into responding to intelligence and reasoning in man, animals also had "something" that evolved into emotions in man? But then, that "something" should not be necessarily called emotions; even if the end result is the same.

Submitted by Marsha | May 2 2011 |

When I leave the house, my little dog sits on the back of the couch in front of the window and watches for me to come back. My husband says, he will not get down to eat with the other dogs. One time I was gone for a few days, and he would go to bed. (He sleeps with us). When I do come home he starts going crazy when I am driving up the lane, even before he sees me.

Submitted by Anonymous | May 21 2011 |

I think animals have feelings!

Submitted by Anonymous | September 27 2011 |

I believe animals have feelings and I believe they can think morally and I even believe that animal lives are equal in value to some human lives but I just can't force myself to become a vegetarian.
I feel like a terrible person...

Submitted by Chester C | December 11 2011 |

Dear Anonymous:
As a genetic omnivore, I find it most difficult to not eat meat. It not only feels more satisfying than a purely vegetarian diet, it is probably also better for us nutrition-wise! We have reminders of our omnivore status everywhere we go; almost all other people eat meat, and it's almost impossible to go to a grocery store or restaurant and not be constantly reminded that the tastiest choices are animal based!

If we can forgive ourselves of this kind of 'transgression' (which does fall within the not-unimportant societal norm) we can also forgive ourselves of other imagined wrongs. The more tolerant we are of our own shortcomings, the more compassionate we can be toward others. Perhaps we can cut down on the amount of meat we do eat. An important thing we may also want to keep in mind is the debt we owe the living things we do consume, and to be deeply appreciative as many that live close to the land tend to be.

Having said all that, I happen to be vegetarian, though if not for someone that repeatedly placed PETA brochures in my mailbox I would not be.

In short, you are NOT a terrible person, but a concerned one that like most of us is doing the best you can. Speaking for myself, I can always improve, step by step...

Submitted by Anonymous | December 18 2011 |

Eating meat does not make you a bad person at all. I don't even think that eating meat is "per se" a bad thing. However, I am truly convinced in my heart that supporting our Meat Industry and our farms for the intensive breeding of animals by consuming their products, is morally wicked and aberrant.
I would strongly recommend you to gather some information on what really goes on in these farms, process that information, arrive to your own conclussion and then act accordingly.
Knowing the truth about laying hens, to name an example, will certainly make you reconsider your thoughts.
Don't get me wrong. You don't have to give up entirely on meat. You can always buy some "Bio Meat" from those farms that guarantee an ethical treatment of their animals.
I guess that the best start for you would be reducing your consumption of meat. From a nutritive stand point, we don't need to eat meat every day. That's not even healthy!
And remember, we can always make this world a better place by putting aside our selfishness.

Submitted by animal lover | March 8 2012 |

I don't think you are a terrible person! I am the exact same way. Sometimes I think about how mean I am, but then my parents say I'm not mean I am just humane! I feel bad, but it's part of life to eat and if you don't like vegetables (like me) then you need to eat something else!!!

Submitted by David Fernandez | October 30 2011 |

Is there any study describing at what evolutionary step (from protozoan to man) emotions appear?
Did emotions appear in one step, or it was gradual?
If it was gradual; How can be described the pre-emotional condition in animals? What is the difference between emotions in man and the in the highest mammals?
Until those questions are answered I will continue believing that animals do not have emotions (at least; the way we describe them in humans.)

Submitted by Anna | February 21 2012 |

Goldfish have feelings. Goldie expresses stress when she gets her water changed out. Fish are fast learners too. Paprika learns from Goldie where the food is, why people are like they are, and more.

Submitted by Jeremiah | March 16 2012 |

Great article , now if you will excuse me.. Yogie is getting "anxious" and "excited" for his walk :)

Submitted by C Besnier | June 17 2012 |

I find the level of anthropomorphism in this short article worthy of Walt Disney. Animals moral beings? How did they develop these moral concepts and ethical behaviour excatly? And by the way hearts are blood pumps; emotions and ideas come from the brain. Maybe you "think with your heart" and that explains a few things.

Submitted by mi | January 20 2014 |

and what is wrong with thinking with your heart?

Submitted by Anonymous | July 12 2012 |

In response to the goldfish comment. Stress is a physiological response. I wouldn't classify stress or intelligence as emotions.

Submitted by k9trner | July 13 2012 |

All mammals have basic emotions. Emotions are fundamental to survival. Emotions can be described as seeking, fear, care, lust, panic and play. In fact, the “lower” the cognitive ability, the higher the emotional dependence. The most obvious example is fear. Any prey animal without fear would not last long. An predator that did not have “seeking” emotion would starve to death. Without a bonding emotion dependent offspring would never survive.

This article is addressing the limited human concept of "empathy", which is an emotion found in most mammals with a cooperative social survival structure. It is the same process in the parent offspring bond and has its roots in the chemical processes of the brain and relates to specific strategy of the species. I realize it takes away from the romantic idea that our dogs truly “love” us, but it is a part of their biology of survival to do so. The domestic dog’s survival depends on his human bond his entire life. It is in his best interest to “love” us unconditionally and protect us. Humans in turn bond to our dogs as if they were a dependent child. We both get benefits. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship that has made the domestic dog one of the most successful and unique mammals on earth today.

Submitted by Anonymous | August 19 2012 |

Really thankful for this article, great insight and information. Learnt a lot from here!

Submitted by Will Miller | November 20 2012 |

I am a strong believer in animal emotions. I can tell animals have emotions just by what I can observe in my own two dogs. When I play fetch or tug-a-war with them they start to wag their tail which shows that they are excited. When they know they did something wrong like tear apart something in the house and I call their name they bow down and put their tail in between their legs to show discomfort or sadness. I also believe that animals can have social attachment to humans. For example, when I leave the house I can see my dogs staring at me through the window. Also, when I come home from being gone for a while they both jump all over me, wag their tails, and cry for joy. This shows that they are in distress when I or someone else in the household leaves. Seeking is also an emotion that is very common in almost all animals, including my dogs. When they are taken for walks or let outside in the backyard, they sniff everything to try and get a better understanding of their surroundings. This shows that animals can be curoius which is very well an emotion.

Submitted by Krystal | December 24 2012 |

Do animals have feelings? Yes. More than people? ok.. More than some people.

The dogs who live in the house I moved into... are very emotionally attached. The male dog and I bonded almost immediately, as I had spent the last 7 years sleeping with a dog next to me and suddenly had none, I kind of kidnapped him at night LOL well now, I can't get him to sleep anywhere else.(We’ve come to an understanding... it’s his bed, his room... I’m just allowed to use it)

He paces around the house when I leave for the weekend, is sometimes seen carrying around a tissue with my scent on it, or will paw at my door to get in (so I’m told)
When I come home, whether it be a 15 min excursion to the local minimart... or 2 hours... or 2 days, he is so excited to see me. He knocks me down and covers my face with kisses, then runs back to my bedroom... (Oh excuse me his bedroom... I just got glared at because I talk when I type) and jumps onto the bed so he can pin me down and lick my face more, before we just cuddle for a moment. He greets no other being in this house in this manner. As a matter of fact, he rarely kisses anyone else.

My last dog, Loki, had to be left with my EX when we broke up. I bring her into this because when I asked her to carry the mail to or from the mailbox she got so excited and happy that she was prancing. She never pranced, unless she was doing something she loved. Loki loved checking the mail, she loved "taking it to daddy" and she even did a whole body shiver when I told her to "Recycle!" and all the junk mail landed in the bin.
She also would occasionally do something... 'bad' while the Ex and I were out. She would greet us at the door, not exuberantly like normal, but with her head down, tail limp and not wagging. We knew she'd done something not ok, and all we would have to ask her is “what did you do?" and she would take us to the mess.

All this proves to me that animals have feelings. All animals are capable of recognizing positive and negative emotions, as well as giving those feelings to another. When a dog is afraid, they show that fear with signs. If those signs are not acknowledged, the dog may bite. When a dog loves their master, they show that love with kisses and other methods to give and receive attention. Significant behavior modifications when that master is no longer present are also methods in which to display their emotional capacity

Submitted by Ece | June 19 2013 |

I always believe and will with all my heart that animals have emotions!

Submitted by Anonymous | April 23 2014 |

I think that this article should be put in the newspaper in neon ink!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!