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Pets think and feel - but maybe not exactly as we do
BY DR. JANICE WILLARD
Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service
When I picked up a toy and shook it, my dog Raven ran around the room in a whirlwind of joyful delight. However, when Raven crashed into the cat, Henry's displeasure, with hissing and lashing tail, was plain to see.

When you think about it, we have no problems recognizing animals' emotions or that many of their emotions are similar to ours. Why then do some people think animals have no feelings or thoughts?

I was reminded of this puzzling question when my colleague Dr. Marty Becker was quoted in a magazine article saying that our dogs love us and got some "interesting" responses from readers, taking him to task for suggesting that dogs were anything more than mindless brutes, functioning on instinct alone, lacking free will, thoughts or emotions. Any science-minded person would know better, one of the readers concluded.

The history of denying that animals have emotions and thoughts is a long one. In the 16th century, a scientist named Rene Descartes was trying to get approval from the Catholic Church for the study of biology (not wanting his fellow biologists to suffer the same fate of excommunication that the astronomers of the day had). The biologists would study the body, he promised, leaving the mind in the providence of the church, thus creating the artificial mind-body split that still plagues Western medicine today. He also concluded that animals were mindless robots simply responding to stimuli with no capacity to feel pain.

In the early 20th century, psychologist J.B. Watson said to study behavior, one could only look at observable effects. What went on in the brain was not observable and thus was considered not important. Humans can report their thoughts, but since complex brain processes in animals were not observable at the time, it was mistakenly concluded they didn't occur.

And so, the 16th century idea persisted that the mind and body are separate and animals have no feelings. And based on a psychologists' nearly 100-year-old theory, the theory continued that animals have no complex mental abilities. Recent scientific studies have shown these to be false, but unfortunately, long-held beliefs, even bad ones shown to be untrue, die hard.

Of course, any observant pet owner would tell you that these theories were hogwash. Actually, considering animals to be unthinking, unfeeling brutes only shows the lack of our observation and critical thinking skills, rather than the lack of these traits in animals.

"It's not a matter of if certain animals have rich and deep emotional lives, it's a matter of why they have evolved," says Dr. Marc Bekoff, professor at University of Colorado and author of "Animal Passions and Beastly Virtues." "Good evolutionary biology combined with scientific data, common sense and intuition allow for no other conclusion. We are not alone in the emotional arena."

Though we recognize that animals have feelings and thoughts, it is important to note they don't always have our feelings and our thoughts. Just like we have different physical abilities - we humans cannot smell scents like a dog or see in low light like a cat - it would be incorrect to assume animals have the same feelings in a particular circumstance as we would have. Placing human motives onto animals is fraught with potential misunderstanding.

For example, people sometimes conclude that a cat is spraying urine out of "spite" or "revenge," when actually this behavior has been shown to be an anxiety-related behavior that occurs when a cat is stressed about personal security.

Likewise, dogs are often judged to be "guilty" when they cower when you stand over them chastising them for soiling the carpet. But this is not guilt; this is an expression of fear and submission in reaction to your anger. Your dog likely doesn't even connect your anger with its act of natural voiding hours ago. In dog language, your dog is saying: "please don't hurt me." So while it is an expression of respect to recognize that animals do have emotions and thoughts, it is also an important part of that respect to realize that they may be similar, but not always the same, as ours.

We are coming to learn that the "mind-body" split is a myth. Health and disease affect mental processes, which in turn affect health and disease. Chronic unresolved anxiety, for example, can harm your pet's physical health. Likewise, health problems can dramatically affect an animals' behavior.

How can you become a better pet parent and get in better touch with your pet's emotions and needs to improve its health and wellbeing? I recommend a new book by veterinarian Dr. Franklin D. McMillan, "Unlocking the Animal Mind." A longtime clinical veterinarian, McMillan has been challenging the veterinary profession to be more aware of how animal emotions affect health and well-being and has written a very helpful book on how the pet owner can understand and improve their pet's quality of life.

"A mountain of research on animals now conclusively shows that there is virtually no aspect of your pet's health that is unaffected by his emotions," McMillan said. "Tending to your pet's emotional well-being helps him in two important ways: It offers him real emotional fulfillment as well as many benefits to his physical health. In other words, it helps him lead a happy and healthy life."

Look into their eyes and you will see what others, blinded by their beliefs, have missed: that animals have emotions as real and significant as our own. Look into their eyes, and trust the evidence of your sight, and you will see the truth in their shining depths.
 

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Beautifully written, specially the last paragraph. I agree also that dogs do have emotions, but not always the ones we think they have. I just had the visit of my dog trainer for Fifi (service dog now...I am a proud mama...you uys are going to be tired of reading my postings...
) because I was concerned over her way of sheltering me from everyone, family members included. She does not leave my lap, and pushes away anyone getting close to me. I thought it was jaleousy...But the trainer explained that it is her sense of duty and her pride in her work. So I looked at her body language, and I think it is true...The tail up high, the gaze toward me....I was explained that each breed has a different reaction to the training. So maybe each breed could have a different range of emotion? By example, the trainer explained that a lab would be more cooperative with other family member, wanting to share the duty. While a Maltese's loyalty can get in the way...because we are theirs, they are not ours...Any comments on the trainer's thoughts?
 

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That's a very interesting article.I know animals have feelings & emotions.I think the more domesticated they are & the more human contact they have,it is more noticable.People who care deeply for their animals can see these emotions very well.Those who think of them as just animals will never see it.The last paragraph of the article is beautiful.
 

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Discussion Starter · #4 ·
Not only do they have emotions but they do wonders for ours.
 

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I can personally relate to the fact they have emotions..
Many years ago we had our Puffy dx with terminal nasal cancer. I was devestated!!! Vet said she'd be Ok comfort wise with the meds till near the end then it would be quick and we'd know we'd have to help her go. We were told she had 3 months.
I went into a terrible funk, crying most of the time. Dear little Puffy would come and lay by me and I'd cry and cry.. and she'd look at me so sad and concerned. She acted so depressed. I thought it was because she didn't feel well in spite of what the vet said. What it was, she was picking up MY emotion. She knew something was wrong.. of course she didn't know what..just that mama was not 'right' and I think she wanted to console me.
My wonderful friend came one day and noticed what was happening. She gave me some valuable words of wisdom. She told me to stop mourning her before her time. She was fine "today".. so don't waste today and the other todays... She said don't waste these precious good days. She said she thought I was "bringing her down" without realizing it.
I thought about it and thought maybe she was right. I snapped out of it... put on a happy face.. made happy talk ...and Puffy immediately snapped out of her funk too! We played games, went for lots of car rides and walks and had wonderful times together. She was as happy and normal as could be once I acted normal. She was picking up on my depression and she too became depressed.
When Missy got cancer I now had the access to the internet. Found a fantastic pet cancer site with loads of info and support group message boards. Aside from the medical aspects the advise was to not show our saddness in front of the sick pup. Time and again I read of the difference in dog's reactions to their owners emotion state in front of them. I already had learned that lesson but found it interesting that it was a common thread.....the dogs went into depression in relation to the owners depression. The dogs did not of course know what was ahead... but the owners worry/fears transferred to the dogs. If the owners perked up in front of the dogs.. the dogs perked up too. This was especially true in the early stages when they weren't really in crisis but the owners knew what was the dx .
I had learned my lesson when we ran into problem with Missy. I didn't start at first news of dx but my friends advise with Puffy quickly rang in my ear and was determined to try to be happy and normal when she was nearby. As it turned out Missy's prognosis was far better than anyone dreamed. The average lifespan was 90-180 days..Missy passed 1 year 9 months from dx and it was not the cancer that was her demise. It was giving her no distress at all. I often looked back and thought what a waste of time it would have been to have gone into a funk.. and what a terribel thing had I caused her to be burdened with emotional distress.
 
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