Thursday 13 October 2022

Do Animals Feel Emotion?


When you look at the images in this blog, what do you see? A relaxed happy cat, and a sad lonely dog? Or are we simply imposing our human emotions upon animals, because that’s what we think they are experiencing and expressing?

We’ll never know for sure, of course, whether animals’ brains are wired in the same way as ours, so we can only observe their behaviour and interpret it as best we can, based on our own emotions and learned behaviour. Owners believe that they understand how their pets are feeling through their behaviour and body language, and, let’s be honest, animals have also learned to be pretty good at communicating what they want to us, whether it’s their food bowl topped up, a walk, or just some pampering!

However, how much they really feel we’ll probably never know. Humans are very good at anthropomorphising creatures. Just look at the number of cartoon and fictional animal characters who speak, dress and interact with each other just like people. This must influence our perception of animal behaviour, if only subconsciously.

The jury is still out as far as science is concerned. Philosopher Philip Godfrey-Smith’s work Metazoa: Animal Life and the Birth of the Mind' explores three behaviours that provide clues in animals:

Do they tend to and protect injured body parts?

Most creatures except insects do

Do they consider costs and benefits?

Some do, for example by tolerating minor pain in order to be safe

Do they seek pain-killing chemicals after injury?

It’s been proven that some animals will opt to undertake behaviour that alleviates pain

    Sad and lonely?

But behaviours and emotions are different. It can be argued that animal behaviour is, to a large extent, instinctive and reactive: ie. driven by hunger or self-preservation. Reactions between different creatures to fear and threat also show that we can’t interpret behaviour consistently across species. Some may ‘freeze’ when threatened; others may run, and some attack. Some may do nothing at all. So even the ‘fight or flight’ response that we humans instinctively show is not the same for animals.

Ultimately we may never completely understand how animals experience the world. We know that some of their senses (sight, smell, hearing) are more highly developed than our own, whilst others (communicating) are less so.

Perhaps it’s best to simply respect and admire their differences to us, and enjoy the fact that we can share our lives with domesticated creatures who enjoy our company.