Do Animals Have Feelings?

Sad dog

Sad dog? (Image by t. magnum via Flickr)

It’s wrong to attribute human characteristics to animals. Yet, it seems to me, that the opposite (of anthropomorphism) is as wrong, that is, to say that animals cannot be happy or sad because these are human emotions. It is true that we can’t prove whether an animal is happy or sad, but we can’t prove either that it can’t. As Carl Sagan wrote, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” We know nothing about one or the other. All we can see is behavior and the rest is guesswork.

The argument for anthropomorphism is valid enough: if I can’t prove (verify) something, I’d better disregard it (at least scientifically); and I can’t prove that my dog is happy, sad, or loves me.

Then again, we are not better off with our own spouses, children, friends, not to speak of strangers. What do we know of their feelings and emotions? We can’t prove either that they are happy, sad, or love us. We assume it (and often we are wrong) because we compare their behavior with our own when we are in particularly similar states of mind.

You may argue that there is a difference between comparing humans with one another, and humans with other animals, that we are after all members of the same species and that it makes sense to presume that if I am sad when I show a certain behavior, then you are also sad when you show the same (similar) behavior. You may have a point, though not a very scientific one—and yet not always. Cultural differences, as you know, play us many tricks and some expressions cover completely different emotions in different cultures.

It appears that our attributing emotions to others, like being happy or sad, is not very scientific, is more a case of empathy, or being able to set ourselves in the place of the other; and researchers have uncovered that other primates besides humans, as well as other mammals, show empathy. Recently, researchers have also found that honey-bees are capable of showing a kind of emotional response; and honey-bees, as invertebrates, account for about 95% of all species.

If it is true that the only reason why I can assume that someone feels something particular is by resemblance (by comparison), then, I fail to see why we cannot accept that animals (at least some species) also can be happy, sad, etc. Given, the comparison is more distant, but aren’t we after all sons and daughters of the same DNA?

If we can’t prove that everyone experiences the same similarly enough to allow us to categorize it under the same name, it seems to me that it makes no sense to claim that because humans know of love, happiness, and sadness, other animals (absolutely) don’t.

“A difference of degree, not of kind,” as Charles Darwin wrote, seems to me a prudent and wise approach; and to reserve further judgement until we can prove it.

Therefore, if it is a sin to attribute other animals human characteristics, it must also be a sin to say that because we do, they don’t, because we can, they can’t. The first is, as we know, called anthropomorphism; the second, I will name it anthropodimorphism.

So, if you ask me “Can my dog be happy or sad?” I will ask you back “Can you?” and if you answer “Yes, of course”, then I’ll say “In that case, probably so can your dog, albeit differently from you—a difference of degree, not of kind.”

Bottom-line: don’t assume that others feel the same as you do, not your fellow humans, not other animals. Don’t assume either that they don’t, because they might.

Life is a puzzle, enjoy it!


17 comments on “Do Animals Have Feelings?

  1. I’ve mentioned this before, your work has inspired me to reseach feral canine emotion and with Raymond Coppinger’s help I am in the process of compiling and analysing data.

    I hope one day we get to meet again and discuss my findings. Till then it’s always a pleasure to read your articles.

    Best regards,

  2. Gaby, I have a feral dog I’m working with for the past 18 months. I would be very interested in what you have found in your research regarding feral canine emotions. If you wish to contact me, please do so via my wordpress ID.

    George and Honey

  3. Hi Everyone,

    I am really glad I found your blog Roger! Gaby, good luck with your project. Hi George and Honey!

    Wolf Park

  4. Hi Pat,

    What a great surprise to meet you (also) here. Please, feel free to use any of my blogs to support your work, should you find them useful. Also, feel free to comment. Your opinion is important to me.

    My greetings to you all at the Wolf Park. My recent visit was undoubtedly one of my best experiences of the kind. I loved the tranquility, the no-razzmatazz of the whole set-up, the seriousness and humility—very rare, indeed, these days.

    Keep smiling (and howling), life is great!


  5. I’ve always considered that it is not anthropomorphism to note the shared qualities of humans and animals.
    Thank you for spreading the message that animals do indeed have feelings.

    I’ve been studying and writing (as a columnist) about this topic for many years. And I ventured into the world of blogging about it some time back – now in the relatively new Pack Mentality Blog –

    My area of study has been in self-awareness and state of consciousness. I believe that animals with self-awareness do indeed have the capacity to experience joy and suffering – both mentally and physically.
    I’ve studied this in a host of rescue dogs – in our family setting. I can report without a doubt that dogs do experience happiness and sadness. For example, we all know dogs have fun and they enjoy playing.

    Thank you again. I will be posting a link to your site on the Pack Mentality blog roll.

    Tom Grady

  6. Hi Tom,

    I’m a scientist and I adhere to all good practices of our western science, but I think we should question everything. The conundrum of the behavioral sciences is that it is not an exact science in the same sense as physics (for the most) or mathematics. Behavior is like the light spectrum: it is as difficult to say when yellow turns into orange as when one behavior turns into another; yet, our brain tends to tidy up things in small boxes. I like to turn things upside down once in a while, it’s good mental exercise.

    Your fields of interest are particularly difficult to study, but in my opinion they deserve serious investigation. Keep up and keep in touch.


  7. Hi everyone,

    I accidentally hit the “like” button of my own post and I can’t undo it. WordPress tells me that they’re working on the “unlike” option. It’s not that I don’t like my post. If I didn’t like it, I wouldn’t have written it, but I don’t want to appear narcissistic!

    Keep smiling!


  8. Roger, Animals do have feelings, in my opinion, all ones needs to do is look and live with a feral/fearful dog and observe the body language and after months of work you can see the difference as they realize there really isn’t anything to fear.

    Dr Robert Sapolsky in his “The Uniqueness of Humans” Talk revels how all Mammalian Brains function the same. You may like to view the video of his talk.


  9. Interesting article Roger. I have watched dogs so much over the last 40 odd years and at times I am sure they have feelings but then I cannot work out if it is their feelings or just the dog taking cues from what I am feeling and exhibiting in my minute body language cues and pheromones. I think the only way to be sure about this would be to study wild dog packs and see what happens there when one of their members have died.

    Regards from spring in Australia.
    Louise Kerr

  10. Hi everyone,

    The objective of my blog was to suggest a more modest approach to the subject of animal feelings and its bottom-line that we should not emphatically deny other animals characteristics that appear to be very human. I will still warn (in synchrony with anthropomorphism) against the dangers of describing animal behavior in human emotional terms, not particularly because they are human, but because they are vague, non-observable and non-measurable. We should always try to describe behavior as objectively as possible and find explanations as to function, cause and effect. Describing behavior in emotional terms is guesswork. We should not exclude the (very likely) possibility that animals may experience sadness, happiness, jealousy, etc., but it is still a dangerous practice to describe their behavior as such for we know nothing about it.

    In the end, what I suggest is merely a more balanced approach, less categoric, more open-minded, but strict as always as to scientific methodology.

    Enjoy your day!


  11. Hi Roger
    I attended the seminar in Leeds over the weekend 10th & 11th December, I have to say I really enjoyed the seminar, can’t wait now for the next and possibly do the project you mentioned as well as signing up for a course or two
    Christine Meaney

  12. Pingback: 16 Things You Should Stop Doing In Order To Be Happy With Your Dog | Roger Abrantes

  13. Pingback: A Dog’s Self-Respect | Roger Abrantes

  14. Pingback: Dogs And Children | Roger Abrantes

  15. Pingback: 16 cosas que debería dejar de hacer para tener una vida más feliz con tu perro | Roger Abrantes

  16. Pingback: 為了讓你跟狗狗可以快樂地在一起 “16件別再這麼做的事情” | Roger Abrantes

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s