Sharing Emotional Worlds | Thinking Animals United

By Megan McGrath

Do animals have emotions?

The answer, from three leading animal scientists: Absolutely, of course, yes, animals do indeed feel pain, pleasure, and probably sadness, and they sometimes maybe even feel jealous or empathic. The question is no longer if; it has become a question of what and why.

If you have ever been in close quarters with an animal, of course, this will probably seem like a ridiculous question. You have seen a wagging dog smile its toothy smile as it greets you, or heard the contented purr of a cat settling down on your lap, and seen and heard a million other moods and expressions of what certainly seems like feeling from the animals you share your life with. You’ve probably even built a whole relationship with at least one or two animals in your life. Of course they have emotions! So why are we still wasting time on this question?

Getting inside the emotional mind

Sharing Emotional WorldsUntil a few decades ago, most scientists were unanimously in agreement in saying that animals probably didn’t have emotions. It was also decidedly unpopular to make further inquiries. B.F. Skinner once stated, “The ‘emotions’ are excellent examples of the fictional causes to which we commonly attribute behavior.”

This sounds ridiculous, we know. But it is difficult to collect data supporting the existence of emotions. We can watch young foxes pouncing on each other, or a pair of mated birds grooming each other, but beyond observing what animals are doing, can we say that they are feeling anything? As Dr. Marc Bekoff, Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado at Boulder put it during the Thinking Animals lecture Sharing Emotional Worlds, the scientific community was “agnostic” on the matter of animal emotion—until very recently. Now advances in neuropsychology, and in experimental behavior, have finally allowed us to conclude that animals definitely feel emotion. Dr. Jaak Panksepp, the psychobiologist who originally coined the term “affective neuroscience”—a name for the study of the neurology of emotion—gave us an overview of the neurological pathways that give rise to the experience of emotion in humans. As it turns out, a vast proportion of the animal kingdom shares these pathways in their own brains. And finally, solid experimental data is catching up to what we’ve seen with our own eyes all along: animals certainly feel pain and fear at what hurts them, pleasure and happiness at what is good for them, and even more complicated emotions besides. Dogs and capuchin monkeys seem to have a sense of unfairness. Mice, rats, and chickens have been found to display empathy. Some species show signs of mourning when their associates have died, or what we might call PTSD when they have undergone traumatic experiences. We have only begun to understand what animals might be feeling.

The evolution of pain and pleasure

Dr. Jonathan Balcombe, author of the new book The Exultant Ark: A Pictorial Tour of Animal Pleasure, gave us a few reasons why the existence of animal emotion just makes sense. First of all, we humans are animals, and there’s not much of a debate as to whether we have emotions. As Charles Darwin once wrote that the differences between species are differences of degree, not of kind: we are all cut from the same evolutionary cloth. If you go back far enough on the phylogenetic tree, all animals are distantly related, so if we humans feel emotions then it stands to reason that some of our cousins do, as well.

Another thing: presumably, there’s a reason that we humans feel emotion. Systems this complex don’t generally evolve without good reason. Emotions almost certainly help us to survive: they are built-in rewards and punishment. Pain lets us know to avoid harm, and positive emotions, such as the excited curiosity that comes with pursuing and investigating things, keeps us doing the activities we need to do to live. This is almost certainly why cats seem to love stalking and catching their prey, whether that prey is a bird or your laser-pointer—they probably do love it. The neural pathway that controls that excited curiosity, according to Dr. Panksepp, is called the “Seeking” pathway. It makes the very process of exploration inherently rewarding.

Social Emotion: Bowing dogs and laughing rats

One function of emotion is, of course, in social life. Dr. Marc Bekoff studies animal emotion, and particularly joy and play behavior in dogs. There is plenty of speculation as to why animals play, but it’s almost certainly good for all of us, it feels really great, and it’s very social. But because play so often incorporates actions that might otherwise be harmful—such as play-fighting and gentle biting between friendly dogs—it must be carefully negotiated, with all participants knowing without a doubt that they are playing. This has resulted in gestures like the play-bow—a bouncing, ground-slapping motion that only playing dogs do. There’s always a risk that someone will be misunderstood, and play will turn into a real fight, but it’s a risk worth taking, because play is fun.

For a long time, Dr. Jaak Panksepp and his lab staff wondered if there was any communication happening when the rats in the lab played together. The rats were curiously silent, no matter how rough their wrestling, tumbling play got. That is, they were silent until Dr. Panksepp had the idea to record the rats ultrasonically, above human hearing. Now when the rats wrestled, and also when researchers tickled them, much as you would a human baby, they heard a pinging volley of chirps. The rhythm of these infrasonic blips is unmistakably similar to human laughter, and it seems to serve the same purpose. There aren’t many scientific discoveries that are so whimsical: rats giggle when you tickle them! We may be separated by millions of years of evolution, but the fact stands that if you are a social species, it’s a good idea to tell your playmates that you’re having fun.

Our changing understanding

This is a whole new world opening up to science. When a herd of elephants surrounds a dead calf for hours, stroking it with their trunks, lifting the body, growling and trumpeting, we must conclude they are feeling something—but what do they feel? Sadness? Grief? “We must leave ourselves open to the possibility that animals feel emotions we don’t,” said Dr. Balcombe. Perhaps a cheetah coursing its prey at 60 mph feels something no human will ever feel. Something like the humans feelings of freedom, or excitement, or joy—but something that is ultimately unique to the experience of being a cheetah.

So now that our understanding is changing, what can be done with our new knowledge? Drs. Bekoff and Balcombe both argued that the now-overwhelming evidence for animals’ complex emotional lives merits reevaluation of our concept of animals as individuals, and of our treatment of those individuals. “When people say ‘what’s for dinner,’ or ‘what are you wearing,’ if you’re eating an animal or wearing leather it’s probably more like ‘who’s for dinner,’ and ‘who are you wearing?’” said Dr. Bekoff firmly. Dr. Balcombe echoed his sentiment. “If you can feel pleasure, it means the experience of life isn’t just pain or non-pain; it includes this whole realm of positive experiences,” said Balcombe. “It means that life is worth living, and it means that you have intrinsic value. The cow is valuable to the dairy farmer for the money it can make, but the cow has her own value to herself, because life is worth living.”

Megan McGrath is a writer and student studying animal behavior and conservation in New York.