Understanding your pet’s emotions

While this dog may look very guilty, dogs are in fact not capable of feeling guilt.
While this dog may look very guilty, dogs are in fact not capable of feeling guilt.

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 they feel?

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.”

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.

Did you know that your pet can improve your OWN emotions? Read more here.

Happiness and love

Both cats and dogs are capable of showing happiness. Your dog may react by wagging his body, buttocks and tail as you arrive home after a day at work. The way he reacts to the sound of your voice, his desire to be near you or the gentle licks he gives you are all clues about how he feels about you. Some pet owners are astounded that their pets seem to ‘know’ when they are sick and stay close by.


Animals can definitely get depressed, and like humans, may withdraw from the activities they once enjoyed. Owners often notice a change in a dog or cat’s behaviour when a beloved fur-friend passes away. They immediately want to ‘help’ the animal by replacing the lost friend with another right away. This can be a recipe for disaster! “You can’t substitute relationships,” explains Karin Pienaar. “You can’t replace one human with another and expect to have the same relationship with the person. It’s the same with animals.

 Which emotions do our pets NOT share with us? Find out in the November issue of Animaltalk.


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