Animal Aid Articles Magazine

Do Animals Have Emotions?

By Jody McCutcheon

“I knew I should’ve taken that left turn at Albuquerque.”

These immortal words of regret belong to Bugs Bunny, the venerable cartoon character who helped persuade children worldwide that animals have emotions. The interesting thing about the quote is its explicit expression of regret, the kind of complex emotion normally associated with humans.

But never mind cartoons, and for now, never mind regret. The question is: do animals  have emotions? By emotions we mean “subjective, conscious experiences characterised primarily by psychophysiological expressions, biological reactions and mental states,” as stated by the dictionary.


For decades (centuries?) the debate has waged between scientists, philosophers and pet owners, though the outcome hasn’t always been so promising for animals of the nonhuman variety. Thanks largely to Aristotle, and later Descartes, we started out believing nonhuman animals lacked sentience and self-awareness. And tradition is a tough nut to crack.

Optics, Skeptics

The modern line of skepticism comes in the form of Morgan’s Canon, an Occam’s razor approach to animal behaviour in which the simplest explanation is most favoured. Why attribute animal behaviour to higher psychological processes when a lower-level process will suffice? Behavioural psychologists reduce apparent emotional responses in animals even further, to a basic stimulus-response model. And most detractors rebuff pet owners and their anecdotal “evidence” of animal emotions with accusations of anthropomorphism, the spurious attribution of human qualities to nonhuman animals.

Heck, until 1989, American veterinarians were taught to ignore animal responses that suggested pain. Surprisingly, only in 1997 did the European Union legally sanction the notion of animal sentience.

Darwin’s Disagreement

Yet as early as the nineteenth century, Charles Darwin was telling a different story. What began as an idea for a chapter on emotion in The Descent of Man would become a whole book examining emotions in human and nonhuman animals. Darwin believed emotions are adaptive, serving communicative and motivational functions. He also believed in evolutionary continuity, whereby differences among species are seen as variations in degree rather than in kind: “If we have or experience something, (other animals) do too.” Thus, he reasoned, non-human animals must experience emotion, to some degree.

Since Darwin’s day, researchers aplenty have uncovered evidence of emotional and even moral intelligence in animals. From the famed Jane Goodall to contemporary academics like Dutch primatologist Frans de Waal and American biologist Marc Bekoff, much of the scientific community has gradually swung toward consensus with Darwin. And don’t forget the myriad pet owners who would testify under oath that their dog smiles, or their cat frowns, or their bird sings, that they know how their pet is feeling just from the expression on its face.


In the 1970s, a new branch of scientific inquiry was created to address the issue. Cognitive ethology  fuses the studies of animal behaviour and cognitive ethology to probe the influence of conscious awareness and intention on animal behaviour. If anything can help provide answers, it’s a whole branch of science devoted to the subject matter.

And it seems to be bearing fruit. In 2012, the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness stated: “Convergent evidence indicates that nonhuman animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviours.” And: “subcortical neural networks aroused during affective states in humans are also critically important for generating emotional behaviours in animals.” What this suggests is that all mammals, birds and even creatures like octopuses possess the capacity for emotion and perhaps morality.


The Biology of Empathy

On the issue of morality, most card-carrying philosophers would beg to differ. They tend to consider animals incapable of self-reflection, and thus of morality. Most philosophers see moral behaviour as a function of intellect. Yet skeptics like David Hume and later Darwin have suggested moral decisions stem from innate feelings of empathy and sympathy for those around us. In other words, they see morality as a function of biology, not intellect.


With humans possessing a larger, more developed prefrontal cortex–the part of the brain in charge of judgment and rational thought–human morality is likely more developed than animal morality. Yet both, according to Bekoff and Jessica Pierce in their book, Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals, take root in “a suite of interrelated, other-regarding behaviours that cultivate and regulate social interactions.” Nonhuman animals in social situations abide by a code of “right” and “wrong,” demonstrating pro-social behaviours like empathy, forgiveness, trust and reciprocity. Breaking the code invites ostracism, and ostracism compromises survival. Under this paradigm, morality and emotion are adaptive behaviours.

That could explain why they seem to be present in so many species, including non-human primates, dogs, rodents, elephants, even birds. Let’s look at some of these behaviours, starting with primates.

Who’s Aping Whom?

As our closest relatives, non-human primates would be a favored bet to act most like us. Indeed, a 2005 study reported that over ninety percent of the social interactions of most nonhuman primates are affiliative, suggesting they’re not the unfeeling savages detractors see them as, but rather creatures working together toward common goals, cooperating (other-regarding behaviour) and obeying rules (recognizing “right” and “wrong”)–much like our species at its finest.

Non-human primates display an impressive depth of understanding and expression, not to mention proclivities for complex emotions like empathy. Diana monkeys that learn to put a token in a slot for food will help companions unable to learn the task, inserting the token for them and allowing them to eat the forthcoming reward. Macaque monkeys won’t pull a chain for food if it delivers an electric shock to a companion.

Koko, a gorilla trained in sign language, signed and exhibited expressions of sadness when her pet cat died. (Animals with pets! Doesn’t that scream “emotion”?) She also expressed sadness at never having had a baby, and she cannot bear to watch sad movies–they make her sad herself.

Chimps appear to recognize the emotional significance of facial expressions, as they can match videos of happy or sad events with pictures of happy or sad faces. In an entertaining TED Talks segment, Frans de Waal shows footage of monkeys engaging in a behaviour called inequity aversion, or a “preference for fairness and resistance to incidental inequalities”.

And then there’s Binti Jua, a female gorilla that rescued a small child who fell into the gorilla enclosure, protecting the boy from other gorillas and gently carrying him to zoo authorities waiting at the gate. Maternal instinct or otherwise, that’s the kind of compassion that makes heroes of humans. In fact, primates, elephants and dolphins have expressed such a range of human emotions, many scientists are now pushing to have them classified as ‘non-human persons’.  


Canine Capabilities

Certainly, any dog-owner will tell you their best friend displays an equal range of emotions like joy, love, fear and anger, and research confirms this. Stanley Coren, a University of British Columbia professor and a leading researcher in canine intelligence, says dogs are roughly equivalent to a two-year-old human in terms of intelligence and emotion. Domestication has likely played a large part, as dogs have lived side-by-side with humans for millennia, familiarising themselves with human moods and emotional cues.

Dogs may even feel complex emotions like jealousy. In a recent study, subjects manifested jealous behaviour when owners ignored them in favour of a stuffed dog, but not so much when owners ignored them for another toy or a book. The subjects didn’t resent the loss of attention per se, but the loss of attention to what they thought was a competing dog. And dogs produce the hormone oxytocin, which experiments demonstrate is involved in human feelings of jealousy and love.

Cultural stereotypes of rats may be unflattering, but don’t underestimate their capacity for complex psychological processes like empathy and altruism. Researchers report rats choosing to free restrained companions over eating chocolate, abstaining from pressing a food button if it results in a shock to another rat, and working to lower stress for agitated companions.

A recent study of food preferences in rats yielded interesting results, as subjects displayed behavioural signs of regret. (Perhaps it’s fitting that Bugs Bunny can also express regret, as rabbits are lagomorphs, closely related to and often confused with rodents.) It also happens that moments of regret, or regret-like behaviour, produce the same neurophysiological activity in the orbitofrontal cortex of rats and humans.


Costly Experiments

Many other creatures exhibit emotion-inspired behaviour. Elephants weep, bury their dead and revisit the graves. Chickens and ravens show empathy, while loneliness from social isolation damages African grey parrots at the chromosomal level. The list goes on.

We may share similar behaviours with non-human animals, but we can’t be sure these behaviours arise from the same introspective experiences. Was Binti Jua’s act merely maternal instinct, or a deliberate act of compassion? Did the macaque monkeys or rats refuse to pull the food chain or press the food button to avoid shocking their companions, or simply to avoid hearing an unpleasant squeal? Recall Morgan’s Canon. Were these creatures displaying the higher psychological process of moral concern for companions, or simply instinctive aversion behaviour? Only continued neurological research will provide definitive answers.

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But isn’t there enough anecdotal evidence to submit that maybe we shouldn’t subject animals to so many painful experiments, or the cramped, confining and even torturous conditions of food farms, zoos and circuses? At the pitted centre of a complex, uncomfortable truth is the fact that much of this evidence has been collected through painful experiments and observations of confined animals. Researchers may be reluctant to verify, or inclined to ignore altogether, any truth indicating that non-human animals possess emotions. Otherwise, our unethical practices of exploiting sentient creatures would have to cease.

In the meantime, as the case that animals have complex emotions increases, researchers in the USA have thought of a way of getting around the problem of vivisection: simply redefine the word “animal” so that  birds, rats and mice are no longer considered animals. Researchers can now experiment on these creatures legally and without compunction until, uh, the cows come home. Science, as the biologist Bekoff says, is doing all it can to rob animals of their sentience, and the dignity it should afford them.

Maybe the bigger question is, will we ever regret how we’ve treated animals? Will we ever concede that we should’ve taken that left turn at Albuquerque?

All images: Wikicommons

References/Further Reading

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    Do Animals Have Emotions? – Urban Times
    Sep 19, 2014 at 6:58 pm

    […] a gorilla trained in sign language, signed and exhibited expressions of sadness when her pet cat died. (Animals with pets! Doesn’t that scream “emotion”?) She also expressed sadness at never […]

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