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There is no scientific consensus on emotion in animals, that is, what emotions certain species of animals feel. The debate concerns primarily mammals and birds, although emotions have also been postulated for other vertebrates and even for some invertebrates.

Animal lovers, scientists, philosophers, and others who interact with animals, have suggested answers but the core question has proven difficult to answer since animals cannot speak of their experience. Society recognizes animals can feel pain as is demonstrated by the criminalization of animal cruelty. Animal expressions of apparent pleasure are ambiguous as to whether this is emotion, or simply innate responses, perhaps for approval or other hard-wired cues. The ambiguity is a source of controversy as there is no certainty which views, if any, reflect reality. That said, extreme behaviourists would say that human "feeling" is also merely a hard-wired response to external stimuli.

In recent years, research has become available which expands prior understandings of animal language, cognition and tool use, and even sexuality. Emotions arise in the mammalian brain, or the limbic system, which human beings share in common with other mammals as well as many other species.



While humans have had differing views of animal emotion, the scientific examination of animal emotion has led to little information beyond a recognition that animals have the capacity for pain and fear, and such responses as are needed for survival. Historically, prior to the rise of sciences such as ethology, interpretation of animal behaviour tended to favour a kind of minimalism known as behaviourism, in this context the refusal to ascribe to an animal a capability beyond the least demanding that would explain a behaviour. Put crudely, the behaviourist argument is, why should humans postulate consciousness and all its near-human implications in animals to explain some behaviour, if mere stimulus-response is a sufficient explanation to produce the same effects?

The cautious wording of Beth Dixon's 2001 paper on animal emotion exemplifies this viewpoint:

Recent work in the area of ethics and animals suggests that it is philosophically legitimate to ascribe emotions to non-human animals. Furthermore, it is sometimes argued that emotionality is a morally relevant psychological state shared by humans and non humans. What is missing from the philosophical literature that makes reference to emotions in non-human animals is an attempt to clarify and defend some particular account of the nature of emotion, and the role that emotions play in a characterization of human nature. I argue in this paper that some analyses of emotion are more credible than others. Because this is so, the thesis that humans and nonhumans share emotions may well be a more difficult case to make than has been recognized thus far.[1]

Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson expresses a similar view:

While the study of emotion is a respectable field, those who work in it are usually academic psychologists who confine their studies to human emotions. The standard reference work, The Oxford Companion to Animal Behavior, advises animal behaviourists that "One is well advised to study the behaviour, rather than attempting to get at any underlying emotion."[2]

There is considerable uncertainty and difficulty related to the interpretation and ambiguity of emotion: an animal may make certain movements and sounds, and show certain brain and chemical signals when its body is damaged in a particular way. But does this mean an animal feels—is aware of—pain as we are, or does it merely mean it is programmed to act a certain way with certain stimuli? Similar questions can be asked of any activity an animal (including a human) might undertake, in principle.

Because of the philosophical questions of consciousness and mind are involved, many scientists have stayed away from examining animal emotion, and have studied instead, measurable brain functions, through neuroscience.



Primates and in particular great apes are candidates for highly developed capabilities for empathy and theories of mind. Great apes have highly complex social systems. Young apes and their mothers have very strong bonds of attachment. Often when a baby chimpanzee or gorilla dies, the mother will carry the body around for several days.[3] Jane Goodall has described chimpanzees as exhibiting mournful behavior.[4] See notably the example of the gorilla Koko, who expressed sadness over the death of her pet cat, All Ball.


Research suggests that canines can experience negative emotions in a similar manner to people, including the equivalent of certain chronic and acute psychological conditions. The classic experiment for this was Martin Seligman's foundational experiments and theory of learned helplessness at the University of Pennsylvania in 1965, as an extension of his interest in depression:

A dog that had earlier been repeatedly conditioned to associate a sound with electric shocks did not try to escape the electric shocks after the warning was presented, even though all the dog would have had to do is jump over a low divider within ten seconds, more than enough time to respond. The dog didn't even try to avoid the "aversive stimulus"; it had previously "learned" that nothing it did mattered. A follow-up experiment involved three dogs affixed in harnesses, including one that received shocks of identical intensity and duration to the others, but the lever which would otherwise have allowed the dog a degree of control was left disconnected and didn't do anything. The first two dogs quickly recovered from the experience, but the third dog suffered chronic symptoms of clinical depression as a result of this perceived helplessness.

A further series of experiments showed that (similar to humans) under conditions of long term intense psychological stress, around 1/3 of dogs do not develop learned helplessness or long term depression.[citation needed] Instead these animals somehow managed to find a way to handle the unpleasant situation in spite of their past experience. The corresponding characteristic in humans has been found to correlate highly with an explanatory style and optimistic attitude and lower levels of emotional rigidity regarding expectations, that views the situation as other than personal, pervasive, or permanent. Such studies highlighted similar distinctions between people who adapt and those who break down, under long term psychological pressure, which were conducted in the 1950s in the realm of brainwashing.

Since this time, symptoms analogous to clinical depression, neurosis and other psychological conditions have been in general accepted as being within the scope of canine emotion as well.


The emotions of cats have also been studied by science. It has been shown that cats can learn to manipulate their owners through vocalizations that are similar to the cries of human babies. Some cats learn to add a purr to the cry, which makes it less harmonious to humans and therefore harder to ignore. Individual cats learn to make these cries through operant conditioning; when a particular cry elicits a positive response from a human, the cat is more likely to use that cry in the future.[5]


A 2007 study by the University of Guelph Scientists in Canada suggests that fish may have their own separate personalities.[6] The study examined a group of trout that were visually identical. The study concluded that different fish within the same group exhibited different personality traits. Some fish were more willing to take risks in unknown waters than others when taken from their environment and introduced to a dark tube. Some fish were more social than others while some fish preferred being alone. Fish were also shown to have different preferences as far as eating habits.

See also


  1. ^ Ethics & the Environment, Volume 6, Number 2, Autumn 2001, pp. 22-30, Indiana University Press [1]
  2. ^ Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, Susan McCarthy: When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals ISBN 0-385-31428-0
  3. ^ Mama gorilla won't let go of her dead baby
  4. ^ Almost Human, and Sometimes Smarter
  5. ^ "Cats Do Control Humans, Study Finds". July 13, 2009. Retrieved 2009-07-20. 
  6. ^ Tom Spears, CanWest News Service; Ottawa Citizen; Published: Monday, November 26, 2007 [2]

Further reading


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