Can Animals Be Humiliated?

Ody's adventures with poop and sausages.

Posted Feb 21, 2012

Our elderly and very wobbly Vizsla Ody fell over in the kitchen one day, after our heeler-mix Topaz tried to nip at his Achilles tendon. Ody was frightened and distressed, and as he slipped and struggled on the bamboo rug, he began to poop. As he flailed, the poop smeared on his back. My tweenage daughter and her friends were watching, wide-eyed with horror. When I reached down to help Ody up, he tried to bite my arm. Finally, I managed to lift his soiled hind end and he tottered off out the dog-door, not once looking back. I felt, for Ody, a sting of humiliation.

As I thought about this event later, I wondered how closely my own reaction tracked onto Ody's. Did Ody himself feel humiliated? Or was I projecting my own feelings onto him? I suspect the latter, but I'm really not sure. Charles Darwin claimed that shame and embarrassment are uniquely human: no other animal has the physiological means to blush. Yet Darwin's insights only go so far, and I suspect there is much about animal emotion that we still don't understand. Perhaps animals do experience something akin to humiliation, shame, or embarrassment. Perhaps they don't.

And this leaves me feeling a bit unsettled. One of the most commonly cited cues that euthanasia may be appropriate for an elderly dog is when he can no longer urinate or defecate cleanly, when he has no choice but to go where he is, and we find him, in the morning, lying in a pool of his own urine or covered with his own feces. What you hear people say about situations such as these—and what I myself felt as Ody struggled on the floor—is that it is humiliating, and this is what is so bothersome. Because we don't know whether animals feel humiliation—and let's say, to be conservative, that they do not—then we need to look more closely at the logic behind our own concern. If we alone feel the humiliation, should this so strongly influence our decision-making about when to euthanize an elderly animal?

Merely being covered in poop would not, I can attest, bother Ody in the least. He has emerged from the bushes on many a hike covered from nose to tail in the excrement of some animal or another, and he bears a look of great satisfaction. Being covered in his own excrement may be different—I really don't know. But although I don't think Ody was feeling humiliated during the fecal incident, he was clearly distressed. What might be distressing to an animal about soiling themselves is a sense that they have lost the capacity to engage in one of the most primitive of the "natural" behaviors (do not soil your own nest). Or, as with Ody, the distress may come from not being able to stand up and move around. Or, it may be that they feel anxious about doing something they have been trained, from puppyhood, not to do, and they don't like to disappoint us.

I'm not sure that animals feel humiliation (as a noun), but it is certainly true that we can humiliate them (as a transitive verb). A particularly memorable humiliation occurred during a family camping trip in Moab, Utah. One evening, our always-looking-for-a-laugh friend Max taped a huge sausage to Ody's belly, like a super-long penis. Max then sent Ody traipsing through the campsite as we all sat around the fire, causing a huge uproar. Ody seemed oblivious to the joke and was simply happy to be the center of attention. Yet there was something about the whole episode that felt wrong, because the joke was at Ody's expense; it humiliated him in our eyes. The worst part for Ody was when we had to pull off the tape, along with a substantial helping of red hair. Ody had his revenge the next day when he stole the remaining sausages off the table (with my help) and Max had no dinner. After apologizing to Max, I secretly gave Ody a high-five.

If you think about how we relate to and use animals—take a walk down the greeting card aisle of your local store, or go see the circus, or watch you-tube videos of stupid animal tricks—it seems we humiliate them all the time. Even if they can't feel humiliation, isn't there something wrong with humiliating them for our pleasure?

Ody in Moab, resting after gorging on sausages