This year, we Americans will likely spend over $700 million on Valentine’s Day gifts for our pets. Clearly, we love our animals. But can they love us? Or for that matter, do they know that we love them? In 1872, Charles Darwin published The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals. In this book, published 15 years after his famous Origin of Species, he proposed that all emotions, whether those of humans or those of other species, were evolutionary adaptations. They served essentially the same purpose in nature and therefore most likely were experienced in the same ways. Nevertheless, until recently it was considered scientific heresy to claim that animals could love or feel loved. The concept that animals feel fear, depression, joy, empathy, grief or any number of other so-called “human” emotions was simply out of the question. Researchers in the past based their knowledge of animals’ inner lives solely on observations of behavior. They believed that since we can’t know what an animal actually experiences when exhibiting a behavior, it would be unscientific to assume that the experience is like our own. The prevailing notion was that non-human animals merely react to stimuli without feeling or awareness, like machines wound up and left to run. Despite Darwin’s conclusions, humans continued until recently to be regarded as special, unique in our ability to experience emotion.
But science is now catching up to what pet lovers have known since the first wolf or wildcat ventured into the human circle of fire. We now have the ability to measure brain activity and hormonal and neurochemical responses. Some researchers have even trained pet dogs to remain still during a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scan while their brains’ responses to various smells and sights are recorded. Much as Darwin proposed, scientists are learning that other animals have the same mechanisms of emotion as human animals. Recent developments in neuroscience are demonstrating that not only dogs, cats and dolphins, but all vertebrates, and even many invertebrates from octopuses to honeybees, have some capacity for self-awareness and experience emotions in a way similar to humans. In addition, tests such as the “mirror recognition test” show that many animals are able to understand that they are viewing an image of themselves as individuals in a mirror. Other experiments have measured “cognitive bias,” finding that other species appear to share with us this tendency to experience optimism or pessimism based on long-term living conditions. According to Jonathan Balcombe, biologist and director of animal sentience at the Humane Society Institute for Science and Policy, “It seems that life for an animal can go well or ill, and that an individual’s inner state has an ambient dimension beyond the fleeting emotions of a given moment.”
Continued and well-documented current observations of animal behavior add to the contributions of these new scientific tools. In an interview with National Geographic, conservation writer Carl Safina, author of Beyond Words: How Animals Think and Feel, relates the case of “an old woman who couldn’t see well, got lost and was found the next day with elephants guarding her. They had encased her in a sort of cage of branches to protect her from hyenas.” Award-winning author Safina says this display of empathy may seem extraordinary to us, but “comes naturally to elephants.” Safina also cites pet guardians as people who know from everyday observation how animals feel, experience and love. His statements validate what we’ve known about our pets all along. “It’s very obvious that animals are conscious to those who observe them. They have to be in order to do the things they do and make the choices that they do and use the judgments that they use.”
So while you may not want to pass up that (super cute!) cupid-themed cat toy or doggie cupcake, this Valentine’s Day keep giving your animal companion more of the gift you give every day: your love. Studies show your pet will love you back.