Animal Emotions - We Aren't The Only Species Who Feels

Updated: Jul 28, 2020

"I feel pretty, oh, so pretty..."

Most people who share love with an animal in their lives will have no problem with the idea that animals have complex emotions. Not just hunger, anger, or fear, but a range of nuanced emotions. Recent scientific breakthroughs such as the fMRI studies by researcher Gregory Berns on awake dogs shows that animals not only have a range of very human-like emotions but that the places in their brains that are activated by these specific experiences match very closely the circuitry for how humans light up with the same emotions.

As neurologist Jaak Panksepp says, animal "brain scans show that core emotions of sadness, happiness, rage or fear, and motivational feelings of hunger and thirst, are generated in deep and very ancient circuits of the brain."

Carl Safina reports in his book, "Beyond Words - What Animals Think and Feel" "Researchers in labs can now trigger many emotional responses by direct electrical stimulation of the brain systems of animals." They are finding that cats, dogs, and humans (to name a few) have the same emotions produced in the same parts of the brain.

And not all emotions are comfortable for our pets, who share our lives with us. Today's modern pets are beginning to show neurotic emotional responses. These problems are so common now that that the new field of Animal Psychiatry is prescribing drugs like Prozac -- for pets and zoo animals. Have you seen a calm animal in a zoo? Many gorillas in zoos are on Prozac.

Whether pets really need these mood-altering drugs remains controversial. Not everyone agrees that this is the direction we should be going, at least at the nearly epic levels these prescriptions are being given. But what is true is that one of the top reasons animals are owner-surrendered to shelters is behavioral issues. Many of which could be handled with positive training methods.

Veterinarian Nicolas Dodman, a professor emeritus at the Tufts University Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine and author of the book "Pets on the Couch,- Neurotic Dogs, Compulsive Cats, Anxious Birds and the New Field of Animal Psychiatry" has written that animals experience behavioral disorders similar to those of humans and that pets may need medications to alleviate their suffering. Treating these conditions, Dodman says, might also prevent some pets with behavioral issues from being sent to shelters or from being euthanized.

The Washington Post reported that "On the basis of a 2017 national survey, the market research firm Packaged Facts concluded that 8 percent of dog owners and 6 percent of cat owners gave medications to their pets for anxiety, or for calming or mood purposes within the previous 12 months." And Veterinarian Nicholas Dodman bases his entire practice on dealing with emotional issues in animals. Dogs with compulsive behaviors show the same brain abnormalities as humans with obsessive-compulsive disorder and respond to the exact medication as is prescribed for humans.

Rats Laugh when Tickled by a Friend

Lab rats can become addicted to the same euphoria-producing drugs that humans get addicted to. And lab rats have been shown to dream and to enjoy tickling from friendly humans. And now that we have computer equipment that can register their laughter, we know that they laugh when they are tickled. And that they even begin to laugh in anticipation when the "tickler" enters the room.

Carl Safina says, "So, do other animals have human emotions? Yes, they do. Do humans have animal emotions? Yes, they are largely the same. Fear aggression, well-being, anxiety, and pleasure are the emotions of shared brain structures and shared brain chemistries, originated in shared ancestry, originated in shared ancestry. They are the shared feelings of a shared world. An elephant approaches water anticipating the relief of refreshment and the pleasures of mud. When my puppy rolls on her back to prompt me to rub her belly -- again -- it's because she anticipates the soothing experience of our warm contact. Even when my dogs aren't hungry, they always enjoy a treat. They ENJOY a treat....I'm not suggesting that humans and elephants have ALL the same emotions. Self-loathing is uniquely human." (Beyond Words).

Neuroscientist, Gregory Berns, author of How Dogs Love us, has taught dogs how to go into MRI machines and is thus able to see an alive and awake dog brain as it reacts in real-time has shown that their brains are strikingly similar to human brains. In his words:

"Although we are just beginning to answer basic questions about the canine brain, we cannot ignore the striking similarity between dogs and humans in both the structure and function of a key brain region: the caudate nucleus. Rich in dopamine receptors, the caudate sits between the brainstem and the cortex. In humans, the caudate plays a key role in anticipation of things we enjoy, like food, love, and money."

Berns and others have produced solid evidence for rich emotional lives of dogs and other animals. Watch the Ted Talk by Berns discussing the Emotional Lives of Dogs, where he shows how the reward center in the brain is very similar to a human brain. Also, he gives evidence from brain scans for how dogs really do miss us when we are gone.

Another researcher, Jeffrey Masson, has studied the emotional lives of dogs. His book Dogs Never Lie About Love, Reflections on the Emotional World of Dogs, describes the intensity and purity of canine emotions.

"The look of pure joy when they are about to get something they want, or pure disappointment when they know they won’t is palpable. While these emotions may not be exactly the same as human emotions, as Darwin noted, the difference may be in degree, not kind."

Masson believes that not only do dogs have emotions, such as love, joy, anger, disappointment, jealousy, fear, contentment, etc., but their emotions may be purer than ours, simply because these emotions are not conflicted. Humans, for example, may feel love and hate at the same moment, or love and ambivalence for the same person, or fear and attraction for the same person. In short, our emotions are often conflicted or complicated by thoughts such as judgment and guilt. Whereas dogs have, in his words, a certain "intense simplicity."

Masson quotes Freud, who remarked on the fact that "dogs love their friends and bite their enemies, quite unlike people, who are incapable of pure love and always have to mix love and hate in their object relations." Masson says we can learn something about the purity of emotions from our dogs. When we see their capacity for joy, we are enthralled, maybe even envious. Watching them play or roll on their backs in the grass, writhing in simple, pleasurable sensations, we recognize the emotion, the joie de vivre, and perhaps realize we are not having nearly as much fun.

Dogs are capable of a deep kind of pure love. While humans love, we often are confused, suffer in love, suffer without love, are elevated as well as tormented by love. Dogs, on the other hand, love fully, completely, and simply. In the words of Gregory Berns:

"Dogs are without the ambivalence with which humans seem cursed. We love, we hate, often the same person, on the same day, maybe even at the same time….whereas dogs are less confused about what they feel. It is as if once a dog loves you, he always loves you, no matter what you do, no matter what happens, no matter how much time goes by….they remember this love and they derive pleasure from remembering this love."

Perhaps one of the purposes of having dogs in our lives, (who seem to sense what we are feeling), is to teach us how to become better at loving not only them but by extension, one another.

As Marc Bekoff suggests in the preface of his book The Emotional Lives of Animals, we are making progress in understanding and accepting that animals have emotions. “My colleagues and I no longer have to put tentative quotes around such words as happy or sad when we write about an animal’s inner life.” He and many other researchers assert that dogs have a “theory of mind,” meaning they have a sense that they have a self with feelings, and others have other feelings, which they can recognize as separate from their own, such as feeling compassion for another’s suffering.

It is an exciting time in that science is now catching up with what humans who love animals have always known. Animals have rich inner lives, complex emotions, and can teach us a lot about how to understand our own.

Genie Joseph, PhD


The Human-Animal Connection


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