Emotions are a ‘mental guide’ and affect our behaviour and how we interact with those around us. Emotions such as joy, fear and sadness tell us which situations are good for us and which are bad. From there we are able to react to a situation and adjust our behaviour accordingly. The six basic emotions are identified as happiness, sadness, surprise, anger, disgust and fear.
Do pets experience emotions? Most pet owners would probably say yes and have noticed these classic emotions in their pets, but can pets display more complex emotions? Understanding your pet’s emotions can help you to work out what they are really thinking and what they are trying to tell you.
Dogs can be very obvious with their emotions, especially happiness – they actually smile and some perk up their ears and wag their tail in a relaxed manner.
Happy cats show affection and contentment by approaching with a flagpole straight tail and when you stare into their eyes they will have a long, slow blink. Some will roll onto their back and stretch out exposed.
A happy guinea pig will let out a high pitched squeal. Sometimes their squeals can be hard to read, so also look to see if they are displayed relaxed body language.
Hopefully this isn’t an emotion that you will see too often in your pets but it’s certainly worth being aware of. For cat’s, it’s their natural instinct to hunt, and if he can’t express this even through play he may become despondent or wander the house restlessly.
Dogs that have had a rough past may show signs of post-traumatic stress disorder with a glazed over, blank stare.
If your pet is showing signs of sadness be sure to show them plenty of love and attention to help them through the tough times. They will surely repay you with the same when you are in a rut.
The feeling of surprise can be perceived though sight, sound or smell often causing your pet to stop in his tracks and become fixated on investigating. Depending on how they perceive the situation, they may try to alert their owner, they may bark or growl or become excited.
This is an emotion that pets exhibit for a number of reasons. They may show anger in the form of aggression if they feel threatened. Others may show anger as a response to being irritable or in pain and maternal anger is seen when a mother is guarding her young.
Disgust is an interesting emotion to observe in pets. Author of For the Love of a Dog, Patricia McConnell experimented with her dogs, introducing them to scents that she felt her dogs would find repulsive. These included deodorant, vanilla scented body spray and hair gel. While one dog curled her lip up as if to say “Eww!”, the other wanted nothing to do with the smells and turned his entire body away each time a new smell was introduced.
A pet experiencing fear will exhibit a change in their body language, such as avoiding eye contact, lowering head and body, tucking the tail under the body, widened eyes and pinning the ears back closer to the head.
When it comes to fish, you won’t be noticing any of these signs, but it doesn’t mean that they don’t experience the feeling of fear.
We have witnessed this first hand with our pond of goldfish that they do in fact experience fear. Every few years we get a visit from our local Eastern Grey Egret. He finds the pond an appealing place to be especially with all of the fish! Of course we don’t want to lose our fish, so we have put anti-bird netting with a fine weave over the pond to protect them. Whenever the fish see the Egrets they hide deep in the pond under the foliage. They are so scared that they stay hidden for days and they hide so well that we worry we have lost every single fish. We must have at least 30, so for all of them to disappear before our eyes is just incredible and for them to remember to hide for days on end proves they have a longer memory than most people think. For the fish, the feeling of fear is a true survival instinct.
A lot of people have heard of the ‘fact’ that goldfish only have a short memory span of just 3 seconds. Scientific studies have actually proven that their memory span is nowhere near as short. They can actually remember thing for at least five months!
It’s no secret that puppies love to chew and this includes things that are supposedly off limits. Growing up I had a Beagle named Pebbles and one of her favourite things to do had to be jumping at the washing hanging on the line. I remember once she ripped the edging off my blanket when it was drying on the line. When we discovered what she had done, she felt so guilty. She had her tail hung down between her legs and held her head down low. She really did feel bad for what she had done. Luckily for us she soon learnt to leave the washing alone. Now some would say, this reaction is actually fear – the fear of getting in trouble for what she has done. Only Pebbles herself would know if it was a feeling of guilt or fear but it’s alway a difficult one for an owner to be certain of.
One of the biggest emotions that I have to have noticed in the pets I’ve had over the years would have to be jealousy.
My Sun Conure Jasper spent many years as a solo bird, so he and I formed a special bond. Over the following years we introduced a number of other birds to our family and Jasper has been extremely jealous whenever I pay any attention to them.
Sometimes he would act aggressive towards the other bird. This would include rushing over to bite their toes if they landed on his cage. He would also poop outside of the cage to punish me if I had paid too much attention to someone else or taken too long to come and clean his cage in the morning.
Our family also experienced jealousy with our rabbit Buster. Now this was one very spoilt rabbit and he enjoyed spending a lot of time outside his hutch. If the guinea pig hutch was cleaned first, trouble would strike. Buster would get on top of the hutch and urinate down into it. He would also spin to mark his territory. A lot of this was probably due to him not being de-sexed but he certainly didn’t like the guinea pig getting any attention.
As described by the Smithsonian Magazine, it is hotly debated whether or not animals experience grief. Whether they experience grief in the same way humans do, we can’t be sure but many species of animals have been observed to mourn their deceased relatives.
Did you know that Guinea pigs can be greatly affected by the loss of a cage mate? Guinea pigs are very social animals and are best kept in pairs or small groups. A few months ago our family lost our beloved Cleo and her best buddy Abbey was devastated. We could see how much Abbey was missing her friend in the way should would lay about the cage and her reduction in appetite. She was certainly not her normal self. It is strange but true, that guinea pigs can actually die of loneliness. They are social animal that are best kept in groups. If you are planning on owning a solo guinea pig, you will need to be its constant companion to keep it happy and motivated.
In the following days after Abbey losing her best friend, she was carefully introduced to a new friend, Twinkle. After three weeks, Abbey was back to her normal self and is enjoying life with her new friend.
So it’s not really a question of “Do animals grieve?”, but “How do animals grieve?”
Our pets are truly amazing and even though we don’t speak the same language, they have so much to tell us. Try watching your pet and see what new things you can learn about the way that they see the world.