The study of animal behavior is a cornerstone of psychology for several reasons. Ethology, or the study of animals in their natural habitats, sheds light on how animals interact with each other and their environments, and why they behave the way they do. By studying animal behavior, humans can also learn more about their own behavior—a field known as comparative psychology.
Many researchers who study animal cognition agree that animals “think”—that is, they perceive and react to their environment, interact with one another, and experience different emotions, like stress or fear. Whether they are “conscious” in the same way that humans are, however, has been widely debated in both the fields of ethology (the study of animal behavior) and psychology.
Animals can communicate emotion to one another, but this does not qualify as language. Language is an exchange of information using non-fixed symbols (speech). Animals produce innate signals to warn or manipulate other animals (such as the screech of an eagle when it encounters predators). They cannot vary these sounds to create new signals that are arbitrary and content-rich, as do humans.
Charles Darwin with his theory of evolution was one of the first scientists to acknowledge animals’ mental and emotional capacities. Since then, there have been many discoveries of animals that can think: Chimpanzees can make tools and help each other, parrots can talk, newborn chicken can calculate, dolphins can recognize themselves in the mirror, and scrub jays can plan for the future.
Some animal species, such as chimpanzees and goats, are self-aware. They have clearly demonstrated a Theory of Mind—they understand that others have different perspectives, beliefs, and desires, and they can attribute mental states to others as well as themselves.
Among the most intelligent non-human species are chimpanzees, great apes, elephants, New Caledonian Crows, and dolphins.
While scientists haven’t proven conclusively whether animals love, the evidence that they feel grief suggests they can form attachments. Mammals have the same brain areas required to feel emotions as humans do, and bird brains contain similar structures for thinking and feeling. Animals may also go out of their way to spend time with specific individuals when it’s not necessary for their survival—a possible indication of affection.
Many animals will make vocalizations that sound like laughter while playing or for the purpose of social bonding. For instance, domesticated foxes can laugh, a trick they learned by observing people. Additionally, some dog breeds appear to have a sense of humor and will exhibit playful behaviors to amuse humans.
Practically all living creatures shed tears to clear debris and other irritants from their eyes; however, there is some debate over whether non-human animals cry to express emotions, like sadness or grief. Some experts claim that wild animals who cry make themselves vulnerable, so they are more likely to mask their emotions.
Animals demonstrate through their actions that they are impacted by the loss of a loved one, but it’s unclear whether they understand death or know they’re going to die. Anecdotally, there are examples of animals that hide themselves when it’s time to die, as well as individual animals that kill themselves shortly after a great loss (raising questions about animal suicide).
A wide range of animal species—including whales, dolphins, horses, cats, dogs, rabbits, birds, elephants, monkeys, and chimpanzees—exhibit grieving behavior after the death of a mate or other member of their family or social group. They might sit motionless, withdraw or seek seclusion, lose interest in food or sex, or remain with the carcass for days.
Animal behavior research is particularly relevant to the study of human behavior when it comes to the preservation of a species, or how an animal’s behavior helps it survive. The behavior of animals in stressful or aggressive situations can be studied to help find solutions for humans in similar circumstances; it may also provide insight for dealing with depression, anxiety, or similar mental health disorders.
Animal-assisted therapy, in which dogs, horses, and other domestic animals help facilitate different forms of therapy, can be helpful for individuals who are socially isolated, living with a diagnosis on the autism spectrum, or suffering from a mood disorder or post-traumatic stress. Interacting with animals has been found to increase humans' levels of oxytocin, a hormone that enhances social bonding. Animal behaviorists are also interested in the ways in which animals themselves may benefit from relationships with humans.
Animal behavior is a result of biology and environment. Behavioral changes are triggered by an internal or external cue, such as the appearance of a threat nearby. Animal responses are driven by the primal urges to survive and reproduce. While animal behavior can vary widely based on the individual, certain behavioral traits, like attention seeking and chasing prey, are genetically inherited, as with dog behavior.
While some animal behavior scholars perform experiments and study animals in a laboratory setting, others advocate watching animals in their natural habitats to get a clearer sense of what they do and how they allocate their time.
Innate behaviors are genetically hardwired and can be performed in response to stimuli without any prior experience. Learned behaviors are acquired by social learning, often by watching and imitating adult members of their species. Through natural selection, animals are more likely to pass on skills that will help their young survive and thrive.
Animals are motivated to fulfill basic survival needs for shelter, food, warmth, and community. Through a combination of genetics and social learning, they acquire skills based on their species’ preferences (e.g., some animals forage, while others hunt). Other animal behaviors include migrating to warmer climates during the winter, establishing a group pecking order, and imprinting on a parental figure.
Humans share planet Earth with other non-human animals, many of whom are in danger of going extinct. Learning more about animal behavior can help people conserve nature and better coexist with animals. Additionally, observations about animal behavior may provide fresh insights on why people behave the way they do, and how they can change for the better.
Like humans, animals acquire the necessary skills to survive by watching and imitating adult members of their species. Social learning is quicker and more effective than having to figure out how to do something through trial-and-error, and it gives individuals and the species as a whole a better chance at survival.
Inherited behaviors may vary between species and even among individuals. In dogs, for example, many behaviors are strongly inherited, including trainability, aggression towards strangers, attachment, and attention-seeking.
Animals learn from the behavior of more experienced individuals in their family or social group to figure out which behaviors are likely to be punished and which rewarded. They are motivated to avoid pain and seek out pleasure. They can also be conditioned by people to behave in a certain way using a system of rewards and punishments.
Animal sampling is taking a group of animals from a larger population for measurement. The findings are then used to make generalized conclusions about the whole population. Smaller sample sizes tend to be more problematic and prone to error than larger ones.
Humans and house pets such as dogs have co-evolved ever since humans first domesticated animals some 14,000 years ago. Dogs and cats are beloved creatures the world over and are the lynchpin of a multi-billion-dollar pet product industry.
The so-called pet effect is the widespread belief that owning a pet will make one healthier and happier. This effect may be more anecdotal than reality-based, as many studies find no support or even counter-evidence for the idea that living with a pet enhances human quality of life. In rare cases, pets can transmit serious disorders, such as toxoplasmosis via cat's litter boxes or autoimmune disorders associated with pet birds.
That said, in an era when contact with the natural world is on the decline for many, humans' complex and loving relationships with house pets will endure.
Generally yes. Despite some mixed results in studies, kids with pets seem mostly better off. They have fewer behavioral and learning problems, are less moody, are more physically active, are more obedient, and have improved health overall. They also tend to come from wealthier families and enjoy other socioeconomic advantages.
Pets can provide affection and positive interactions that alleviate feelings of loneliness and isolation. Having a pet can teach children about responsibility and caretaking, while also offering an instant friend and playmate. Pet love can be a powerful emotional resource, particularly during periods of insecurity and self-doubt.
While pets are not a panacea, evidence shows that companion animals can help people who are struggling with mental health problems. They can provide comfort, relieve worry, and ward off a sense of loneliness or isolation; they also prove a source of physical activity and social interactions. Furthermore, caring for a pet can build up a person’s identity and self-worth.
The “Pet Effect” is the rapidly spreading notion that people who have pets live longer and healthier lives. Many people credit their pets with an increase in well-being and health benefits, which include reduced stress, lower levels of cortisol, and higher levels of dopamine and oxytocin, aka the “love hormone.” However, research aimed at proving whether the “Pet Effect” is real remains inconclusive.
When pets are unruly, a person may feel guilty or frustrated that they can’t manage the undesirable behavior. Pets also restrict one’s freedom, making it more logistically difficult to travel or take spontaneous outings. There can be heavy financial and emotional costs to sharing one’s life with a companion animal, including coping with their eventual loss.