Can Animals Really Feel Emotion?

December 4, 2013
cat hug by ravailz

Are these cats hugging to express affection? Or are they just cold?

If animals can experience fear and pain, then it seems intuitive to assume that they can experience the full spectrum of emotions. But some criticize this view, arguing that people are projecting their own human experiences on the animals, thus anthropomorphizing them. It is hard to determine categorically if animals do experience a full range of emotion and to what degree. Fear and pain are easy to determine because these are measurable responses to survival instincts and can be observed in an experiment. There is no survival incentive for happiness, thus making it subjective and difficult to measure.

On the other side of the argument, happiness and pleasure can teach behavior just as much as fear and pain. Fear and pain teach us not to do something or to flee danger. It can be argued that happiness and pleasure teach us to repeat correct behaviors to help ensure survival as well. For example,  endorphins are released and make us feel pleasure when we eat food or have sex to ensure that we repeat these behaviors. But do animals feel happiness in this capacity or are they guided by instinct to feed and reproduce?

By psychological definition, emotions need three processes: physiological response to a certain stimulus, an outward expression of emotion, and analysis of emotion. These guidelines make measuring emotion difficult in humans, let alone another species. It has been observed though that the neurological behavior of some animals experiencing happiness is similar to the brain process that humans have when experiencing happiness. Moreover, the amygdala portion of the human brain looks very similar to that of animals, and both get fired up during similar responses to stimuli.

Critics believe that people anthropomorphize animals and project emotions to help us better understand our surroundings. Citing that we misinterpret behavior to fit into our definition of how they world works. There are species of animals such as elephants, sea lions, geese and moose, that display some level of grief over the death of a loved one. On a lighter note, dolphins, chimpanzees, and elk seem to experience pleasure during play, sex, and eating. Most pet owners can attest to their pets displaying emotions through simple behaviors like purring or wagging of a tail. Again, it is hard to measure the certainty of these assumptions.

There are convincing arguments on both sides and it is hard to determine which is right. More and more studies are showing that animals do display some emotion and are capable of emotions. For example, in his book, The Emotional Lives of Animals, Mark Berhoff explores why studying this subject matters and how it can be applied to the world today. If these studies these hold any ground, it could mean a total redefinition of how we view the animal kingdom and set new standards and guidelines on the treatment of animals and the preservation of life.

Also in Animals: Pet Personality Test – What does your pet say about you?

Peaceful Farming: The Comeback of Barnyard Animals

Also by Krystle: Do’s and Don’ts of Feeding Your Pet a Vegan Diet


Photo: Ravailz via Flickr



Krystle is the vegan blogger of The House of Snuggles. She currently resides in the desert with her furry family and when she’s not writing she’s baking, cooking, and exploring the possibilities life has to offer.


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