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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.

Do Animals Have Thoughts and Emotions?

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.

What animals can think?

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.

What animals are self-aware?

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.

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Understanding Animal Behavior
Tory Kallman/Shutterstock

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.

What causes animal behavior?

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.

How do you observe animal 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.

Are Pets Good For Your Health?

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.

Are pets good for children’s health?

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.

How do pets make our lives better?

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.

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