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 3: Heads, shoulders, knees and toes

Today, the epic conclusion to my trilogy of animal emotion blog posts. The focus of this post, is how we can use the body language of an animal to understand how it's feeling.

That idea isn’t as far fetched as it may first appear. The method is called qualitative behavioural assessment and the whole idea behind this method is that an animal’s agency or emotion shows in how they behave. Animals cannot display behaviours without doing them in a certain way. We can then look at an animal’s body language and be able to tell how they are feeling.

When it comes to using this method scientifically, it’s a little more complicated than that. Generally speaking, a group of participants generates terms to describe an animal’s behaviour and then score another group of the same animal using those terms. A specialised statistical software then creates a consensus plot consisting of two dimensions, which looks like a ‘+’. These dimensions describe the two most prominent expressions generated by the participants e.g. one dimension could be the “happy/sad” dimension whereas the other is the “active/passive” dimension. All the animals that the participants scored then fall somewhere on these two dimensions. By looking at where the animals fall, we can find differences due to environment, situation, physiology etc. A great example of this is as follows: horse and ponies were viewed as they entered a new, open arena. Using qualitative behavioural assessment, participants scored horse higher on both the quiet/nervous and attentive/bored scale. This shows that horses were more quiet and calm in a new situation than ponies were.

I guess the main critique of both these techniques is that they are relatively new and therefore less established or accepted in the science community. However, both measuring facial expression and body language have been correlated with already-established physiological measures, making them valid measures of emotion. They also have been shown to have good reliability (the results are consistent across people). 

So, it seems the recent advances in finding out how animals are feeling are what we do on a daily basis to find out how other people are feeling. I love this because it makes science accessible and understandable to a wider range of people than just scientists themselves. That way, people are informed about the world around them and may even become a little more inquisitive themselves!