Do Animals Really Feel Emotions? How Do We know?
You know when your dog is happy, sad, angry or afraid. And if your cat is hissing and swatting at you with his claws, you know this isn’t the best time for a cuddle. Pets' body language is easy to see, but because they can't express themselves in words, what they do or don’t feel has long been a point of controversy.
Mutts in MRIs
Neuroscientists at Emory University have been using MRI technology to compare canine and human brains. Through slow and gentle conditioning, they’ve trained dogs to tolerate the confined space and loud sounds of the scanner. The results show that dogs’ brains are structured just like ours, only smaller. They have the same hormones we do and experience the same chemical changes during various emotional states—to a point.
Like toddlers with tails
We now know that a dog’s emotional capacity is roughly equivalent to that of a 2-year-old child. This means they can feel excitement, disgust, fear, anger, joy, sadness, suspicion, jealousy and—no surprise here—love. They also read our faces and voices to sense these emotions in us. And though we’ve all seen the drooped head or belly walk of dogs who know they’ve been naughty, canines actually never develop the more complicated emotions of shame and guilt. What we’re seeing is their fear of our reaction!
The cat’s meow
Good luck trying to train a cat to hold still in an MRI scanner! Still, the anecdotal evidence points to cats experiencing all the same basic emotions dogs do.
It’s even possible that dogs and cats experience emotions more purely than humans, precisely because they can’t intellectualize and thus separate themselves from their feelings. Or as Mark Twain put it, “Of all the animals, man is the only one that lies.”