Animal Emotions



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? 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!


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.”


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.


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
Many animals seek out play, displaying specific signals to initiate and maintain play with others, and even playing with inanimate objects or themselves (such as when a dog chases his own tail). This play is also seemingly contagious as animals observing other animals play can stimulate play in themselves. Researchers in the field observing this, as well as pet owners in the home, often infer that animals are enjoying themselves when engaged in play. Neurobiological research also supports this notion, studying patterns in neurotransmitter changes, like dopamine increase, during or in anticipation of play. This suggests that the enjoyment of such activities may be a motivator for engaging in it.
Another commonly hypothesized animal emotion is sadness, or grief. Observations across a large number of species have shown marked changes in behavior upon the death of one of their species. Jane Goodall (1972) observed a young chimp withdraw from his group, stop eating and eventually die after his mother died. Decades later, biologist Marc Bekoff described the collective grief of a herd of elephants, seen standing “guard over a stillborn baby for days with their heads and ears hanging down, quiet and moving slowly as if they are depressed.” Similar behaviors can be observed in domesticated animals; when one pet dies, the others are often described as acting differently (depressed, disoriented, apathetic, anxious). While many of these vivid examples provide compelling evidence for the existence of animal sadness or grief, further comparative research is needed to continue to learn more about the function and subjective nature of these experiences in animals.


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."

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.