Which Emotions Do We See in Dogs and Cats?

Dogs and cats may differ in the range of emotions that their owners identify.

Posted Jul 14, 2016

b1ue5ky photo -- Creative Commons license
Source: b1ue5ky photo -- Creative Commons license

It was way back in 1872 that Charles Darwin published a book called The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals. This book started a firestorm of controversy for a number of reasons. One was that it was the first scientific study of the similarities between the emotions of man and animals. Prior to that time, the people who wrote about emotions were mostly poets and novelists. Another was that at that time it was believed that only humans had true emotions. This was because emotional feelings were supposed to reflect events occurring in the soul, and, according to church doctrine, only humans had souls.

The book contained many examples of what clearly appeared to be emotional responses in various animal species—however, some of the most compelling examples of animal emotions came from Darwin's observations of his little white terrier, Polly. I bought a tattered copy of this classic from a secondhand bookstore for under a dollar. It was just a few years shy of 100 years after Darwin wrote it that I got to read it. For me it was a transfixing experience since it constructed a scientific bridge between the minds of humans and the minds of animals. Ultimately it became one of the major influences which set me on the course of scientific work that has occupied me for so many years.

I believe that the vast majority of scientists today are willing to accept the fact that dogs have emotions. The controversy in our time focuses on the question of which specific emotions do dogs have. There is reasonable agreement that dogs consistently show the six primary, or basic, emotions: anger, happiness, fear, surprise, disgust, and sadness. These are the same emotions which show up reliably in human children by the time they are around two and a half years of age. It is believed that cats also show the same basic emotions, although there is considerably less research on this. The real controversy has to do with whether dogs show the more complex social emotions, such as shame, jealousy, guilt, disappointment, compassion, and pride (for more about some of these issues click here or here).

Over the past two decades some psychologists have begun to investigate the personality of dogs. The study of personality really has to do with the predicting of behaviors and emotional responses of individuals. Two psychologists, looking at different aspects of the problem, hit upon the same method of studying the question. James Serpell of the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia, and Samuel Gosling of the University of Texas, in Austin, both felt that the people who live with a dog, and thus are observing its behavior continuously under a variety of different situations, would probably have the best information as to how a dog would respond at any given time. This could give them a hint as to the dog's personality. Since part of the expression of personality involves that individual's typical emotional states, it would seem logical that if we are interested in which emotions dogs (or cats) might show, it might be useful to consult the owners of these companion animals to gather information on the kinds of emotions that they see in their pets. This is exactly the method that a team of researchers headed by Pim Martens of Maastricht University in the Netherlands chose to use. Their findings appear in a report in the journal Anthrozoos*.

This was a fairly large study, using a rather extensive set of questionnaires. It was conducted over the Internet, and involved 1,023 Dutch speaking dog and/or cat owners. Most of the people who filled out the survey inventories were females from Belgium and the Netherlands, and their average age was around 43 years.

The people who responded reported commonly observing all of the six basic emotions (anger, happiness, sadness, disgust, fear, and surprise) in both dogs and cats. Of the four complex emotions that the researchers inquired about, jealousy was the one which most reliably appeared. Shame, disappointment, and compassion were much rarer. According to the pet owners it appears that the complex emotions are observed more frequently in dogs than in cats.

There were some other marked differences between dogs and cats. Dogs were much more likely to show joy than cats, while anger and disgust were more frequently attributed to cats than dogs.

There were some odd quirks to the data having to do with the sex and age of the dogs. For example people who owned a female dog were more likely to feel that they observed sadness, jealousy, and disappointment expressed by their dog, then did people who owned male dogs. For cats, disgust was more commonly attributed to females than males. If we believe the observations of the pet owners it seems that older dogs are less happy since they are more likely to express the emotions of anger, sadness, and disappointment. When it comes to cats there is a similar pattern, with joy and surprise more commonly attributed to young cats than to older cats.

Although it was not the main focus of this study, one interesting measure that the researchers used involved the strength of the emotional bond between the owners and their pets. It is not surprising to find that the people who were most strongly attached to their pets were also more likely to see clearly definable emotional responses in their companion animals.

There are some other interesting aspects of what determines the strength of the human animal bond with pets. Generally speaking the emotional attachment was stronger when the pet was a dog than when it was a cat. In addition, consistent with a number of other research studies, women had stronger emotional bonds to their dogs and cats. Older pet owners had a somewhat weaker level of bonding with their pets, however the longer that the pet had been in the household the stronger was the emotional attachment between owner and animal. An interesting additional finding was that people who did not have a college level education were more strongly bonded and involved with their pets.

Of course, the pet owners who were providing the data for this study were not dispassionate, uninvolved, professional observers. Rather they were the people who were living with, and caring for these dogs and cats. When asked about the emotional interactions between themselves and their pets, it became clear that the owners often felt that their pet's emotional state might have been triggered by their own emotional reactions in certain situations. Thus some of the emotions that we attribute to our pets might well come about because our dogs, and to a lesser extent our cats, serve as a mirror for our own emotional states in particular situations.

Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: Gods, Ghosts and Black Dogs; The Wisdom of Dogs; Do Dogs Dream? Born to Bark; The Modern Dog; Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History; How Dogs Think; How To Speak Dog; Why We Love the Dogs We Do; What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs; Why Does My Dog Act That Way? Understanding Dogs for Dummies; Sleep Thieves; The Left-hander Syndrome

Copyright SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd. May not be reprinted or reposted without permission

Data from: Pim Martens, Marie-José Enders-Slegers & Jessica  K. Walker  (2016) The Emotional Lives of Companion Animals:  Attachment and Subjective Claims  by Owners of Cats and Dogs, Anthrozoös, 29:1, 73-88,  DOI: 10.1080/08927936.2015.1075299

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