Animal emotions

Anyone who has ever owned a pet, at least of the warm-blooded variety, knows that animals have rich emotional lives. Dogs whine piteously when left alone; cats sulk when their owners are going out and leaving them at home; horses can develop such strong attachments to each other that they refuse to be put into different stalls.

But for decades the prevailing wisdom in the scientific world has been that animals don’t experience emotions–just hormonal reactions to outside stimuli. That’s changing, though, as outlined in an article in the current issue of Newsweek by Mary Carmichael.

As Carmichael points out, today there exists a “loosely knit band of researchers” whose studies of dogs, chimps and other animals have begun to provide hard scientific evidence of a whole gamut of animal emotions: fear, jealousy, grief and love.

A lot of their research can be traced back to Jane Goodall, who had had little scientific training when she went to Tanzania to study chimpanzees in1960. As a result, rather than following standard scientific practice and giving the chimps impersonal numbers, she gave them names, and instead of describing their behavior in cold, mechanical terms, she referred to them showing emotions such as joy, depression and grief.

Today, those emotions have been seen in many other animals, including dogs, cats, birds, rats, and even octopi. It’s not surprising they all experience fear, considering it’s the emotion that’s most important to survival. It’s more surprising that some of them show something similar to love, from the stall-sharing horses I’ve already mentioned to chimpanzees who sometimes adopt baby chimps that aren’t related to them.

The emotional life of dogs has probably been studied the most, because after having lived with humans for thousands of years–and being bred into ever-better companions–they can read our emotional cues even better than chimps, and express their own emotions to us more effectively. Samuel Gosling, a biologist at the University of Texas at Austin, says people can reliably recognize four dimensions of canine personality: sociability, affection, emotional stability and “competence,” a combination of obedience and intelligence–traits very similar to the four basic categories of human personality found on psychological tests.

Another piece of evidence that animals have emotions analogous to our own is that psychoactive drugs like Prozac work on them just as they do on us. (Doggy Prozac is called Clomicalm.) Since these drugs modify emotions by altering brain chemistry, the same chemistry, and therefore presumably the same emotions, must be at work in animals.

As Carmichael points out in the Newsweek article, however, you can take that analogy too far. Your cat may feel affection for you, but not for the same reasons, or with the same depth, as a human friend. (Of course, one reason we keep animals as pets is that they seem to love us despite our dress sense, politics or personal hygiene.) Going overboard with the “animals are just like us” thinking results in startling innovations like “doga”–that’s yoga for dogs, and there’ll be two books on the topic published this fall–or outright wackiness like the conviction some people have that their cats or dogs are psychic.

No doubt we sometimes ascribe certain emotions to animals on the basis of behavior that is actually triggered by a completely different brain process. Determining for certain which behaviors are the result of emotions analogous to our own and which are caused by other brain processes will probably have to wait a few years for the advent of wearable, non-invasive brain scanning devices (miniature PET scanners, for instance).

But why, you may wonder, should we even care what animals are feeling? Carmichael theorizes that the new interest in animal emotions may partly be arising from the fact that many people are putting off having children–or not having them at all–instead turning to animals as a source of emotional support. People investing that much emotional energy in an animal want to know that it’s being returned.

And yet, if animals have emotional lives that are at all similar to ours, what does that say about the way we treat them? Not all animals are pampered pets, after all. We keep some animals in cages. We experiment on others. We hunt some down in the wild and kill them for sport. We grow many for food.

The study of animal emotions just may stir up an emotional storm in ourselves.

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