Animal Emotions

Animal Emotions


"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."
— Paul Ekman, PhD, Emotional Awareness

While Dr. Ekman's studies focused on studying human emotions, he believes that animal emotions exist and that further research into this area is important and compelling. Dr. Ekman's studies of universal emotions are based on an evolutionary perspective of psychology, in which emotions are viewed as having evolved through their adaptive value in dealing with fundamental life-tasks. Dr. Ekman believes that each emotion shares common characteristics- it has a distinct signal or expression, certain physiological responses, and events which trigger their onset. Their function is to mobilize the organism to quickly deal with important (sometimes life-and-death) matters.

Do animals have emotions?

Do animals have emotions? This is a long-debated philosophical, biological, and psychological question to which there is no clear and consistent expert opinion. However, from a scientific standpoint—combining behavioral, neurobiological, endocrinological studies, and observation—current research provides compelling evidence that at least some non-human animals have emotions. Likewise, many pet owners and animal enthusiasts claim from their personal experiences a belief that animals do have a rich emotional world!

Do animals experience feelings?


While we often study human emotions using both observable data and subjective reporting, a major barrier to studying animal emotions is the lack of subject reporting: we can't ask animals about their feelings.

There is a fair amount we can deduce from observing their behaviors and recording physiological and neurological changes. However, it is also important to distinguish observable emotional behaviors and expressions from feelings which are subjective states within an organism. Renowned primatologist, Dr. Frans De Waal, describes this difference, writing, “Anyone who claims to know what animals feel doesn’t have science on their side... Emotions and feelings, while often conflated, are not the same... Emotions drive behavior and come with physical cues that allow them to be observed and described; feelings are internal subjective states known only to those who possess them."


Do all animals have emotions?


Most studies center around vertebrates: mammals like elephants, dolphins, dogs, cats, horses, great apes, etc. but also sometimes birds. Some researchers are also extending the hypothesis of animal emotions to apply to reptiles, such as iguanas, observing basic physiological responses to pleasurable states similar to the responses found in other vertebrates, including humans.

A lot of the current research on animals and emotions is inspired by Charles Darwin's seminal work published in his book, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872), in which he posits that there are similarities between the emotions of humans and other animals. Contemporary biologist, Marc Bekoff, explains Darwin's argument "that there is continuity between humans and other animals in their emotional (and cognitive) lives; that there are transitional stages among species, not large gaps; and that the differences among many animals are differences in degree rather than in kind." As researchers explore the taxonomy of emotions in animals, many look to neuroanatomy research for insights, commonly referencing theories such as the triune brain theory and the social brain theory.


Which emotions do animals have?


For those who maintain that animals do experience emotions, there is still debate regarding how many different emotions they show. It's worth noting, though, scientists studying human emotions encounter the same differences of professional opinion. Most agree that humans manifest at least five distinct emotions: anger, fear, sadness, disgust and enjoyment. The argument is about how many more there might be.

The emotion most commonly studied among animals is fear, which has been observed in species ranging from rats to monkeys, and beyond. Enjoyment and sadness are also commonly identified in many animals. The question remains how many more emotions might animals experience. Furthermore, how they experience them probably differs from one species to another, and has yet to be clarified.


Many acknowledge that perhaps the most fruitful advancement of knowledge about animal emotion may come from greater interdisciplinary efforts across lab studies, field research, and philosophical contemplation.

Examples of fear responses seen in the animal kingdom:

  • Fight: a honey badger fighting off a predator
  • Flight: a gazelle running away from a lion hunting them
  • Flight: a gazelle running away from a lion hunting them

What's the future of animal emotion research?


The debate over which methodologies are most appropriate to study animal emotion reflect the many larger questions and disagreements about the existence and meaning of animal emotion and subjective experience or feeling states.

Some call for careful observation and consideration of animal's natural environments, while others focus primarily on neurobiology and endocrinological research. Some are very hesitant of making any scientific claims, highly wary of anthropomorphism, while others embrace it as a necessary starting point to acknowledge and move forward from.

"An anthropocentric viewpoint can be of great value in formulating questions, particularly about such animals as the monkeys and apes, which are closely related to man and share much of man's biology and psychology, but must be avoided in attempting to answer questions."
— Suzanne Chevalier-Skolnikoff, Facial Expression of Emotion in Nonhuman Primates

Many acknowledge that perhaps the most fruitful advancement of knowledge about animal emotion may come from greater interdisciplinary efforts across lab studies, field research, and philosophical contemplation.