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Do Animals Have Feelings?

One of the hottest questions in the study of animal behaviour is, "Do animals have emotions?" The simple answer is, "Of course they do." Just look at them, listen to them, and, if you dare, smell the odours they emit when they interact with friends and foes. Look at their faces, tails, bodies and, most importantly, their eyes. What we see on the outside tells us a lot about what's happening inside animals' heads and hearts.

A Paradigm Shift has Occurred

All animals use emotions to communicate with each other - photo courtesy of Johnny Greig:

The study of animal emotions has changed a great deal in the last 30 years. When I first began my studies centering on the question, "What does it feel like to be a dog or a wolf?" researchers were almost all skeptics who spent their time wondering if dogs, cats, chimpanzees and other animals felt anything at all.

But today the paradigm has shifted to such an extent that the burden of proof now falls on those rare individuals who still argue that animals don't experience 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.

Scientific Support of Animal Emotions

While stories about animal emotions abound, there are many lines of scientific support about the nature of animal emotions that are rapidly accumulating from social and behavioural neuroscience. Common sense and intuition also feds this and the obvious conclusion is that mammals, at the very least, experience rich and deep emotional lives, feeling passions from pure and contagious joy during play, to deep grief and pain. Recent data also shows that birds and fish are sentient and experience pain and suffering. Prestigious scientific journals regularly publish essays on joy in rats, grief in elephants and empathy in mice.

It's bad biology to argue against the existence of animal emotions. Scientific research in evolutionary biology, cognitive ethology and social neuroscience support the view that many animal species have rich and deep emotional lives. Emotions have evolved as adaptations in numerous species and they serve as a social glue to bond animals with one another. Emotions also catalyse and regulate a wide variety of social encounters among friends and competitors and permit animals to protect themselves adaptively and flexibly using various behaviour patterns in a wide variety of venues. Charles Darwin's well-accepted ideas about evolutionary continuity, that differences among species are differences in degree rather than kind, argue strongly for the presence of animal emotions, empathy, and even moral behaviour.

What we have learned about animal emotions and empathy fits in well with what we know about the lifestyle of different species - how complex their social interactions and social networks are. Emotions, empathy, and knowing right from wrong are keys to survival, without which animals - both human and non-human - would perish. That's how important they are. The borders between 'them' (animals) and 'us' are murky and permeable.

In scientific research there are always surprises. For example, spindle cells, which were long thought to exist only in humans and other great apes, have recently been discovered in humpback whales, fin whales, killer whales and sperm whales in the same area of their brains as in human brains. This brain region is linked with social organisation, empathy and intuition about the feelings of others, as well as rapid gut reactions. Spindle cells are important in processing emotions. It's likely that if we seek the presence of spindle cells in other animals we will find them.

Neuro-scientific research has also shown, using functional magnetic resonance imaging (FMRI), that elephants have a huge hippocampus, a brain structure in the limbic system that's important in processing emotions. We now know that elephants suffer from psychological flashbacks and likely experience the equivalent of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Furthermore, all mammals (including humans) share neuro-anatomical structures that are tied to feelings.

And who would have imagined that laboratory mice are actually empathic? But we now know they are. Research has shown that mice react more strongly to painful stimuli after they observe other mice in pain, and it turns out that they are fun loving as well.

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Why Animal Emotions Matter

When people tell me that they love animals because they're feeling beings and then go on to abuse them, I tell them that I'm glad they don't love me. Recognising that animals have emotions is important because animals' feelings matter. Animals are sentient beings, experiencing the ups and downs of daily life, and we must respect this when we interact with them. While we obviously have much more to learn, what we already know should be enough to inspire changes in the way we treat other animals.

A baby kitten showing obvious signs of fear and distress

We must not simply continue with the status quo because that is what we've always done and it's convenient to do so. Quite often what we accept as "good welfare" isn't "good enough." What we know has changed, and so should our relationships with animals. The relationship is a complex, ambiguous, challenging and frustrating affair, and we must continually reassess how we should interact with our non-human kin.

Many people in higher education are faced with difficult questions about the use of animals in their classrooms and research laboratories and today we must accept that there are compelling reasons to ... stop using animals in lieu of the numerous highly effective non-animal alternatives that are readily available. I often ask researchers who conduct invasive work "Would you do that to your own dog?" Some are startled to hear this question, but it's a very important one to ask because if someone won't do something to their own dog that they do daily to other dogs or to mice, rats, cats, monkeys, pigs, cows, elephants or chimpanzees, we need to know why.

Humans have enormous power to affect the world any way we choose. We can no longer ignore the pain and suffering of other beings (see our vegan advocacy article for a guide on what you can do to alleviate the suffering of animals). Daily, we silence sentience in innumerable animals in a wide variety of venues. However, we also know that we're not the only sentient creatures with feelings, and with the knowledge that "what hurts us, hurts them" comes the enormous responsibility and obligation to treat other beings with respect, appreciation and compassion.

There's no doubt whatsoever that, when it comes to what we can and cannot do to other animals, it's their emotions that should inform our discussions and our actions on their behalf. Emotions are the gifts of our ancestors. We have them, and so do other animals. We must never forget this.

Written by professor Marc Bekoff, University of Colorado in Boulder, Canada

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