Animals, too, have Sentiments!


We have known for a long time, but scientists have just recently acknowledged that animals other than humans have emotions. Everyone who has a pet knows this, but scientists were afraid for many years of being accused of being anthropomorphic, of falsely attributing human characteristics to animals. Now the evidence is overwhelming that animals have emotions,

From the book Emotional Awareness: Overcoming the Obstacles to Psychological Balance and Compassion by Paul Ekman, American psychologist and professor emeritus at the University of California, San Francisco

Have you ever wondered what a dog feels when beaten? Does it feel pain? Does it cry? is wagging its tail really a sign of happiness or is it just a gesture that dogs do? Do animals really have feelings and show emotions like humans? The answer is yes; they do have feelings and they can experience emotions from simple ones, such as happiness and sadness, to more complex ones, such as empathy, jealousy, and grief.

Animals’ life is very similar to ours; we both try to stay alive, have food and shelter, and raise our offspring. They know who their friends are and who their enemies are. Their lives follow the arc of a career like we do; they compete and have ambitions for higher status.

According to the dictionary, emotions are “feelings such as happiness, love, fear, anger, or hatred, which can be caused by the situation that you are in or the people you are with”. In simple words, these are the feelings that we show in response to the different situations we face in life. For example, when you cuddle a baby, you feel happy, but if you have a fight with a loved one, you feel sad or angry.

Emotions produce a physiological response in us; you smile to show gratitude, your heart beats faster when you are afraid or excited, and you cry when you feel sad. These responses show others what we really feel. Long ago, Pythagoras (490 BCE), an ancient philosopher and mathematician, believed that animals possessed the full range of human emotions. Today, current research supports the idea that at least some animals experience a variety of emotions, including fear, joy, happiness, shame, rage, compassion, respect, and more.

To meet the scientific standard for sentience, an organism must show itself capable of judging an experience as either positive or negative, and of retaining felt emotions. These are defined as measurable physiological or neural states that guide an organism toward adaptive behavior.

Researchers found that animal and human nervous systems react in similar ways in fearful situations. This indicates that many emotions in animals physiologically mirror those in humans. Also, when observing the hormonal activity in both animals and humans, they found that they respond in the same way when facing the same situations.

For example, in stressful situations, the adrenaline hormone immediately increases reducing the blood supply to all organs that are not absolutely needed in an emergency. At the same time, the blood flow is increased to important organs such as the brain, heart, and lungs. The hormone noradrenaline provides increased alertness, and cortisol provides the energy to deal with stressful situations. Other hormones, such as dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin, play important roles in joy, enthusiasm, and social bonding.

Many people think that empathy is a special emotion in humans only. Nevertheless, many animals’ express empathy for each other. Empathy in animals spans species and continents. They show empathy toward humans and to other animals in a multitude of ways, including comforting, grieving, and even rescuing each other from harm at their own expense.

There are many stories about elephants finding lost people. One of which is about an old woman who could not see well and got lost; she was found the next day with elephants guarding her. They had encased her in sort of a cage of branches to protect her from hyenas. That behavior may seem extraordinary to us but it comes naturally to elephants.

Lawrence Anthony, a conservationist who founded the Thula Thula Reserve with African elephants, gained a reputation for being able to comfort elephants when they arrive at the reserve. In his book The Elephant Whisperer: My Life with the Herd in the African Wild, he stated that he learned how to communicate with the elephants by observing how they communicated with each other. When he died of a heart attack, elephants traveled to his home seemingly to pay their respect. His son said that since his father’s death, the herd has come to his house on the edge of their reserve every night.

Another example is humpback whales who help seals from being hunted by killer whales. There is a documented account of a humpback sweeping a seal on its back out of the water to protect it from the killer whales. These things seem new to us because we have only documented these incidents recently; however, they have probably been doing these kinds of things for millions of years.

Rats join the empathy team even if many do not picture them when they think of empathy, but a recent study proves that rats empathize with their friends. The experiment showed that when one rat was soaked in water, another rat quickly learned how to operate a lever that would allow the rat to escape to a dry area. What is more impressive about this experiment is that the rats gave up a treat that would have dropped if they did not pull the lever to help their fellow rat. This suggests the well-being of their friend was more valuable to them than food for themselves. If the suffering rat was not present, the other rat accepted the treat.

When you think about emotions in other creatures, you may be astonished to know that bees appear in the list. In 2016, scientists discovered that bees are happy when given a treat through testing their reaction after being given a sugary treat. They first trained the bees to associate particular areas and colors with sugary water or plain water. Then, they gave some bees sugary water, some plain water, and opened up a new space with a new color. Bees given the sugar visited the new area quicker than those that were only given normal water, suggesting that they were more optimistic about the possibility of getting a sugary treat. Both those given plain and sugary water took the same amount of time to visit the known areas. After a treat, bees also recovered quicker and started feeding sooner after a simulated predator attack.

Long ago, research strongly suggested that fish behavior is guided by emotion; when observed, researchers found that it avoided dangerous locations based on previous experiences in which it faced negative stimuli. Its behavior proved that it neurologically processes the negative feelings of previous experiences rather than making decisions based solely on immediate stimuli—what feels good or bad in the present moment. Now, most scientists consider fish sentient with similar research piling up for invertebrates like crabs, bees, and octopuses.

Such findings could drive changes in how we treat the animals in our care. For instance, a broad scientific review published in November 2021 by the London School of Economics and Political Science concluded that certain invertebrates such as crabs, lobsters, and octopuses should be considered sentient. They are capable of subjective experiences such as pain and suffering. The conclusions suggest that protection afforded by animal welfare laws should extend to these creatures. One possible outcome is the updates to the United Kingdom animal welfare legislation which may make it illegal to boil lobsters alive, requiring swifter, less painful methods to kill the animals.

Emotions are fascinating, and interest is not the only reason to study them in animals though. Understanding how animals feel and react to different situations can help us improve the lives of those in our care and those around us. We share the same land and the same feelings as well.


This article was first published in print in SCIplanet, Winter/Spring 2022 issue.

Cover image source.

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