Study shows owners and non-owners recognize animal emotions

“‘Sometimes I read about someone saying with great authority that animals have no intentions and no feelings, and I wonder, ‘Doesn’t this guy have a dog?”’

– Frans De Waal, quoted in The New York Times June 26, 2001

Charles Darwin argued that emotions evolved in both humans and animals; and scientists who have studied animals since Darwin have come to recognize the complexity of an animal’s mental states. But what about the non-professional public? Do the rest of us share the views of animal scientists like Frans De Waal? In a paper just published in the journal Society & Animals, scholars from England’s University of Portsmouth focused specifically on popular beliefs regarding whether or not animals experience emotions akin to ours; and, if they do experience emotions akin to ours, how many emotions, and which ones.[i]

The authors questioned survey participants regarding their attribution of emotions in horses, dogs, and rodents. Those participants who had kept animals had experience with more kinds of animals than those three, and may never kept any of the three animals about which they were questioned. This gave the authors the opportunity to consider the responses of three different groups: those who had kept the animals in question; those who had kept any other animal; and those who had kept no animal.

Not surprisingly, respondents attributed more emotions to a species with which they had direct experience. Dog owners, for instance, attributed a greater number of emotions to dogs than did respondents who had never lived with a dog. Respondents who had kept animals other than horses, dogs and rodents – be they cats, birds, fish, whatever — attributed fewer emotions to those three species than did respondents who had direct experience with them; but more than did respondents who had never kept an animal of any kind.

However – and this may be important from the perspective of animal welfare – even respondents who had never kept an animal attributed at least some emotions to horses, dogs, and rodents.

Respondents, whether owners or non-owners, attributed more emotions to dogs than they did to either horses or rodents. Given the extent of dog ownership, this is not surprising. Non-owners may have direct experience with dogs, even if they have never lived with one; or may, more than once have listened politely while a friend extolled the virtues of his/her canine companion.

In advancing one of the first ethical arguments for animal welfare, Jeremy Bentham wrote, “The question is not, can they reason? Nor can they talk? But, can they suffer?” Bentham died in 1832. Within a generation, Charles Darwin had expanded the discussion, and had undertaken the systematic study of animal emotions. It appears from the study in Society & Animals that the findings of science and popular opinion regarding animal emotions intersect. Popular beliefs about the emotional lives of animals have directly influenced attitudes regarding their humane care, custody and control, and can reasonably be expected to do so in the years to come.  


[i] Morris, P., Knight, S., & Lesley, S. (2012). Belief in Animal Mind: Does Familiarity with Animals Influence Beliefs about Animal Emotion? Society & Animals, 20, 211-224. doi:10.1163/15685306-12341234.