You know that absolute enthusiasm that your dog displays when you return home just has to be pure joy. And that woeful expression that you get when he has an accident on your new carpet? Obviously shame. A purring cat? That’s easy. Clearly she is happy. 

Do animals really experience emotions, though, or is our desire to anthropomorphize them taking over here? Brodie Animal Hospital believes that emotions in pets do exist, and science supports us, although their emotional experience is likely a bit different than our own.

The Human Connection

Pets have been a part of the human experience for thousands of years. We know that dogs were domesticated twice by humans – once in Europe about 16,000 years ago and again in Asia about 11,000 years ago. There is evidence, though, that dogs and humans were hanging out together as long as 32,000 years ago.

Given that approximately 67% of households in the United States have pets, it is easy to understand how powerful the connection between us and animals is. The human-animal bond is amazing. We rely on our pets for companionship and emotional support, and it is not a stretch for us to extrapolate our own emotions onto them. 

The Reality of Emotions in Pets

Animals aren’t people, though, and while science supports that emotions in pets are real, they likely aren’t the same as the emotions we experience. 

The big difference lies in a sense of morality. Animals have no concept of the constructed principles of right and wrong. If they piddle on your rug, they do not have the sense that it was “wrong”. They only know that they had to relieve themselves. They may have reactions to your reaction (fear, submission, etc.), but to project the emotion of guilt onto them is a stretch.

So what emotions do pets experience? Animal’s emotions are likely less evolved than our own and more rooted in survival instincts like communication amongst each other and humans. Biological hormones such as cortisol and serotonin also likely play a role. 

Emotions in pets are likely more along the lines of:

  • Fear or anxiety when you leave, leading to chewing up your things, rather than anger towards you
  • Submission or fear when they are scolded rather than guilt
  • Curiosity about your new shoes or an unattended bag of potato chips rather than a vendetta
  • Anxiety about schedule changes or loneliness when another pet leaves the home rather than true grief
  • Comfort when surrounded by packmates in a familiar place

Pride, shame, contempt, and guilt are unlikely to enter your pet’s emotional range because they depend on man-made parameters. More innate emotions such as affection, caution, happiness, anger, fear, contentment, and anxiety are likely experienced to some degree by our four-legged friends. 

Anyone who lives with an animal can attest to the fact that they experience their world in some kind of emotional context. We simply need to reframe our idea of what emotions in pets include to understand exactly how.