Mirjam Guesgen

Freelance Science Writer

I am a freelance science writer currently based in Toronto, Canada, with a particular interest in animal welfare.

I love communicating complex, scientific ideas in an engaging, balanced, thought-out and informative way.

Animal feelings part 1b: Can animals feel emotions?

If you were to ask 50 years ago whether animals have emotions, the answer would likely have been ‘not at all’. Now, there’s evidence to suggest that a wide range of animals (including fish, birds and mammals) feel pain, anxiety and stress. Furthermore, it’s been shown that mammals can experience boredom. What’s great is that now researchers are shifting their focus to positive emotions and how to promote them.

However, answering this question may not be as simple as 'yes' or 'no'. When I gave a talk last week on "how to find out what animals are feeling”, I posed this question to the class. I asked them to rate where they fall on the scale below.

Perhaps surprisingly (or not?), everyone pretty much agreed that different species of animals fall on different places on the continuum. Interestingly, they thought that in order to fall down the far right end (animals have a wide range of complex emotions) an animal must possess a fairly developed brain and the ability to reason. They argued that this was essential for feeling things like guilt or regret, which require some type of memory or reasoning.

I believe where animals fall on the continuum depends heavily on how much research has been done. At the moment there’s no right or wrong answer (is there ever?). I personally think that certain animals do feel emotions, but I’m not yet sure of the breadth of their emotional capability. When you’re pondering this in your own mind, I suggest thinking about the following:

- Which emotions can animals feel?
- Which animals can experience emotions?
- Do they experience emotions in the same way we do?
- What about emotions like guilt, regret and empathy?
- Is it possible for animals to have emotions but not ‘feel’ them?