Animal Emotions

Do animals think and feel?

Dogs In Love: Four Feet of Heaven With a Wiggling Tail

Animals clearly fall in love so let's get over it; and it's love, not "love."

Every February I get asked to do interviews about animal love as Valentine's Days approaches. The main question at hand is, "Do animals fall in love?" I'm also usually asked if I know anyone who would categorically say that nonhuman animals (animals) do not or cannot "fall in love" and as the years pass the list of skeptics gets smaller and smaller. Even the interviewers often have trouble finding someone who would strongly claim that other animals do not fall in love.

Many of you know I've copped the title of this essay from a song called "What is love?" by The Playmates, that was popular years ago. It begins as follows:

Sways with a wiggle, with a wiggle when she walks

Sways with a wiggle when she walks

Sways with a wiggle, with a wiggle when she walks

Sways with a wiggle when she walks

What is love? Five feet of heaven in a ponytail

The cutest ponytail that sways with a wiggle when she walks

What is love? Five feet of heaven and the bluest eyes

And what a pretty smile that shows you a dimple when she talks

Do nonhuman animals fall in love? Emotions as social glue

Of course, many of us know dogs who smile with dimples and who also wiggle when they walk, with their four feet swaying merrily over the ground and their noses seeking out scents they find attractive. I find it very useful to revisit the question "Do animals fall in love?" from time to time as it raises other general and very interesting queries about the emotional lives of animals such as "What emotions do animals experience?" and "Why have emotions evolved?" 

There's no doubt that many animals experience rich and deep emotions. It's not a matter of if emotions have evolved in animals but why they have evolved as they have. We must never forget that our emotions are the gifts of our ancestors, our nonhuman animal kin. We have feelings and so too do other animals.

Emotions are important in developing and maintaining social relationships and serve as "social glue". While some people, but fewer and fewer including active researchers, still debate whether nonhuman animals can "really fall in love", there are ample data that show they can and they do. Individuals of many diverse species form deep and enduring bonds with one another and deeply grieve the loss of loved ones, family members and close friends. Many people have seen dogs and cats grieve - they miss their friends and families - and my students and I also saw similar behavior among wild coyotes when the pack mother disappeared. And, it's real love and real loss, not "love" or "loss". 

Of course, it's highly unlikely that love first appeared in humans with no evolutionary precursors. The renowned biologist, Bernd Heinrich, a raven expert, believes these amazing birds fall in love. In Mind of the Raven, Heinrich writes, "Since ravens have long-term mates, I suspect that they fall in love like us, simply because some internal reward is required to maintain a long-term pair bond." In his book Here I Am - Where are You? The Behavior of the Greylag Goose, Nobel laureate Konrad Lorenz observed that " . . . the greylag goose's peculiar process of 'falling in love' in many ways resembles its human counterpart ..." After bonding, males and females are strongly devoted to one another.

Even in monogamous species in which the same male and female breed from year-to-year, courtship is prolonged and vows need to be continually renewed. In coyotes and wolves, males and females who mated previously will act as if they've never done so before. While courting they sniff one another repeatedly, play, follow one another, and eventually form an exclusive unit. They also rebuff interlopers. When reuniting they greet effusively, whining and licking one another's muzzle. If another male attempts to mate with his consort, he'll drive the intruder off and defend his mate. Likewise, females will reject males with whom she has no interest in mating. In raccoon dogs of South America, males emit a mating cry called the "yearning call" that resembles the distress call of youngsters. Male golden jackals utter an "entreaty call" during courtship. These calls are taken to be signs of falling in love.

Approximately 90% of bird species are monogamous. In some species, males and females form very close long-lasting bonds and enjoy high reproductive success. Weakly bonded geese don't produce as many young as pairs who are strongly bonded. In seagulls, males and females who mate from year-to-year have higher reproductive success than those who don't. In strongly monogamous Bewick swans, mated pairs who remain together also produce more young than pairs that only very rarely divorce.

The strength of the bond that's formed between mates is evidence that a close, enduring loving relationship has been established. Watch rejected individuals when former mates or current beaus choose another animal with whom to consort. I've seen male coyotes, after being rebuffed by a possible mate, slink away dejectedly, head and tail hanging low. Their behavior is totally different from instances when another individual has rejected them.

It's love not "love"

Some people like to put quotation marks (scare quotes) around words such as love, grief, sadness, and jealousy, for example, when they talk about the emotional lives of animals, as if they're not real - as if only we have true emotions but other animals don't - or because they're not like our own. Some skeptics also like to say they're sort of like ours but not as strong or as rich. There's simply no reason to use scare quotes when talking or writing about animal emotions or to assume that their emotions aren't as important to them as ours are to us.

Oh, they're only acting "as if" they're in love 

Skeptics also like use what I call the "as if" disclaimer when talking about animal emotions. They say animals act "as if" they're in love or grieving but they really aren't. However, solid science flies in the face of these claims. There's no reason to assume that nonhuman animal emotions will be just like ours or that all dogs and cats will feel and express various emotions the same, or even that humans always feel they same when they're in love or are grieving. There's also no good reason to think other animals are  "sort of in love" or "sort of grieving" given what we now know about the rich and deep emotional lives of a wide range of animals. We know other animals share with us structures in the limbic system that are important for processing emotions and also show similar neurochemical changes when experiencing various emotions. Detailed ethological studies also show that many animals are deeply feeling beings. 

Let's do away with bad biology and stop robbing animals of their deep emotions

It's bad biology to rob nonhuman animals of their emotional lives. Following up on Charles Darwin's ideas about evolutionary continuity, we know that the differences among animals are differences in degree, not kind. So, the bumper sticker for continuity simply put is "If we have something, 'they' (other animals) do too." People accept continuity when talking about anatomy and physiology and also negative emotions such as anger, but a lingering and dwindling few have been more reluctant to accept it for emotions. Indeed, the tide is changing rapidly as more and more scientists now accept that all mammals and many other animals are conscious beings as witnessed in the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness. Of course, the reason innumerable animals are used and horrifically abused in biomedical research is because of their similarity to us. 

Animal love may not really be any more baffling than human love. Many different notions have passed for human love yet we don't deny its existence. And, how wrong we can be about inferring love or its absence in humans. About half of all marriages in the United States end in divorce. Some people claim they still love their former partners after parting. Some claim they never loved them in the first place. Human love is indeed confusing. Perhaps, after all is said and done, animal love is less confusing or mysterious because animals don't filter their emotions - their love is out there for all to feel if they choose to feel it.

So, when it comes to love, let's face it, we humans don't seem to do all that well in the arena of amor. Perhaps we should be saying that humans "fall in love" and use other animals as examples of what real love truly is. We can learn a lot from them about love and commitment. 

As we continue to ponder the nature of love, Happy Valentine's Day to all of you and to our nonhuman friends wherever they may be and whoever they are. And glow with joy as we watch dogs and other animals who are madly and wildly in love sway with a wiggle when they walk.

The teaser image and the image above along with many other pictures of animals in love can be seen here. Some of what I write above first appeared here

Marc Bekoff, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

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