Do animals also have feelings?

Many dog owners describe how after a long day at work, they arrive home to a pet who seems thrilled to see them. While some cats are aloof, others are loving and warm. Could these positive reactions be an outward show of happiness and love? What about the new puppy who looks shamefully guilty for digging up a garden of prized petunias or the cat who is terrified to visit the vet? Are animals capable of feeling emotion?

Can you feel it?

The answer is a definite ‘yes’ says animal behaviour practitioner Karin Pienaar (Landsberg) of COAPE SA. “In the past, attributing any type of emotion to animals was seen as the wrong thing to do,” explains Karin. “Through scientific research we now know that mammals do experience emotion and it’s okay to say your dog is happy to see you or that your dog loves and cares for you, because we can explain it scientifically. What it’s not okay to do is to attribute higher cognitive emotions to animals.” See the box ‘Emotions we don’t share with animals’.

All mammals use their five senses to gauge information about the world around them. The senses and emotions are responsible for getting the individual’s attention in a situation. They arouse him to react to that information – whether positively or negatively. If something makes you feel good, you’ll want to do it again, but if something makes you feel uncomfortable or distressed, you’ll likely avoid it in future.

Scientific research

Through his work, Jaak Panksepp, a world-renowned neuroscientist at the College of Veterinary Medicine at Washington State University, dispelled the myth that animals are incapable of experiencing emotions. He coined the term ‘affective neuroscience’, referring to the neural mechanisms of emotion.

Panksepp’s findings – supported by strong scientific data – show that the mammalian brain has certain neural pathways on which emotions are generated. Panksepp concluded that if animals have the brain structure, they have the capacity to feel the emotion. He calls the core emotions ‘blue-ribbon emotions’.


7 networks of emotion                                                                     

Panksepp describes seven emotional networks, each found deep in specific parts of the brain. In some situations more than one system may be aroused. “Each system has very specific neurotransmitters [brain chemicals] which are released and govern how you feel and what makes you feel that way at that time,” explains Karin Pienaar.

SEEKING The SEEKING system is linked to survival – the innate drive to make sense of one’s surroundings through search and investigation. For example, when a mammal is hungry or thirsty, he seeks food or water. When dogs do the things they were bred to do, the SEEKING system is triggered, for example, retrieving, herding, pointing and hunting – these are pleasurable for that breed. In humans, the SEEKING system drives you to look for companionship if you are lonely or comfort when you are sad.

RAGE Panksepp believes that the RAGE system evolved through restraint – the prey animal who needs to react very quickly in order to escape from the predator – but says that this system is present in all mammalian brains. An example is a territorial indoor cat, who while sitting at the window sees an intruder cat in the garden. She may react with extreme anger and could possibly take out her rage and frustration on her housemate cat who happens to walk past at that moment.

FEAR The FEAR system is stimulated when an animal feels that his survival is threatened. When an animal encounters a situation for the first time, he gauges what to expect from that situation and processes how he should react. If an animal has a bad experience in a certain situation and is exposed to it again, his brain immediately brings up the bad memory and he reacts to avoid the traumatic situation of the past. Neurotransmitters cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline drive this system.

LUST The LUST system refers to sexual drive and the need to produce offspring.

CARE The CARE system is the ability to nurture one’s offspring. For example, the mother dog who reacts quickly to the sound of a crying puppy. How we love and bond with our pets is also part of this system. Oxytocin, the so-called ‘love’ hormone, drives this system.

PANIC The PANIC system refers to the social attachments experienced by mammals – the mother with her offspring, two animal companions or a dog and his primary attachment person. If the animal is separated from his companion, the PANIC system is aroused. Research has revealed that the part of the brain responsible for the PANIC system overlaps with the brain’s pain area. This means that the loss of someone special can actually result in physical pain.

PLAY The PLAY system allows mammals to engage socially and positively with their comrades and brings out positive feelings of happiness. Panksepp says that play is an antidote for negative emotions, a sign of good wellbeing. Karin Pienaar says animals enjoy play as it makes them feel good. Pets who regularly engage in play sessions with their owners are much happier and far less stressed than those who are not actively stimulated or played with by their owners.

Emotions we don’t share with animals

While animals are able to feel certain basic emotions, they are not are able to feel the higher cognitive emotions that require a well-developed sense of self, reasoning and the ability to tell the difference between right and wrong.

  • Guilt
  • Spite
  • Shame
  • Obsession
  • Hate


Information courtesy of COAPE SA


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