Do animals have ‘feelings’?

A colleague rang in to say her dog had died and she was feeling overwhelmed with grief. On top of that she was worrying about her other dog who appeared to also be mourning the loss of ‘her friend’. Another colleague mocked the first when she heard about this, stating that the first colleague was applying human emotions to animals and she should gain some perspective.

This got me thinking about animals I’ve known and whilst I recognise it’s important not to get too caught up in applying human emotion to them, I’m convinced they do go through a range of emotions and therefore do have ‘feelings’.

My childhood dog would know 10 minutes before one of us got home that we were on our way and start getting excited and pining. Then when we came through the door she would greet us with what can only be described as a grin, her mouth quite literally changed from any other time, curling up at the sides as she expressed her excitement.

I recognise different moods in my cats. They sulk when I go away, get annoyed if I move them from their preferred sleeping space and demand attention when they are in need of some loving! I nearly always know what they want from me by the way they behave or how they meow; this is their way of showing their feelings as well as their needs. One of my cats gets very jealous if I’m giving attention to the other and even if he is fast asleep he will come over and butt in, trying to get the attention onto himself. I’ve heard about animals who have stopped eating or shown rage after they experience bereavement, which surely indicates an emotional response to loss.

I believe animals are sentient beings, they share the same underlying circuitry as ourselves, so whilst they may not have the complexity of emotions we have they most certainly have some. I imagine that animals experience anger, fear, jealously, rage, sadness, surprise and devotion; otherwise they would struggle to make the right choices to survive in the world and ensure the survival of their offspring. I suspect, however, that animals may be far more emotionally complex than we give them credit for and think anyone who has ever developed a relationship with an animal might agree with this.

In addition, animals become an important part of our households and we certainly develop strong emotional bonds to them, so experiencing their loss is absolutely a bereavement and we have to go through the whole range of emotions associated with this before we are able to move on.