Pets and Their Emotional Pain

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Does your furry friend ever get anxious, jealous, or happy?

As a dog owner and animal rights supporter, I have often wondered if animals feel emotional pain. Do they get jealous? Depressed? Excited? From my experience working with dogs, my answer is yes. (Meet my dog Boo on Facebook.)

photoRecently I fostered a dog named Benny. He was a former bait dog who was rescued and was in need of temporary housing until his adoptive family could take him. I fostered Benny for a weekend while my dog Boo stayed with a friend. (Unfortunately, Benny wasn’t ready to be around other dogs.)

With Benny, I witnessed firsthand that a dog could express joy. Benny had the rare ability to literally smile when he was happy, like when he got a pet massage with The Right Spot. I could see his grin. And when I rubbed his belly, I could hear him laughing with this grunting noise.

My dog Boo, on the other hand, exhibited different types of emotion: jealousy and sadness. After Benny left my house, I picked up Boo from my friend’s. At first she seemed excited to see me, but then after she smelled Benny’s scent on my jacket and in my car, she looked at me and turned away, never turning toward me again that evening, not even for some ice cream I bought her as a truce.

A dog trainer at PetSmart in Mount Prospect, Illinois told me that Boo could smell Benny’s scent and that made Boo feel jealous, as if Benny was going to replace her. Of course, I felt terrible and worked to remove his scent, but still, it took Boo a couple days to warm up.

According to Marc Bekoff, Ph.D., and author of the book The Emotional Lives of Animals: A Leading Scientist Explores Animal Joy, Sorrow, and Empathy and Why They Matter, No matter what we call it, researchers agree that animals and humans share many traits, including emotions.

But not every scientist is so certain. Lynne Sneddon, a senior lecturer with the animal behavior team and program leader for the degree program in animal and zoo management at the University of Chester in the U.K. , said some scientists suggest that only primates and humans have emotional pain, as they are the only animals that have a neocortex.

An important issue in animal pain is empathy, and many arguments about what animals feel can only be based on the human experience and, therefore, may be tainted with anthropomorphism,” which is the attribution of human characteristics and qualities to nonhumans, Sneddon said. However, research has provided evidence that monkeys, dogs, cats, and birds can show signs of emotional pain and display behaviors associated with depression during painful experience, i.e. lack of motivation, lethargy, anorexia, and unresponsiveness to other animals.

From my own experience, after Boo returned home, she didn’t eat, even turning down her favorite treat, ice cream. She also barely looked at me for several days, and seemed lethargic and sad. Some may say my observations were the result of anthropomorphism, but I disagree. I know my dog, and I know that she genuinely felt some type of emotional pain–jealousy or sadness–from my hanging out with Benny. And I know Benny experienced happiness and joy when he received his massage.

Regardless of what the skeptics say, I choose to believe that animals have feelings, good ones and even painful ones. (Watch this video of a dog responding to being taken to his owner’s grave.)

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