5 Mind-Blowing Ways Animals Express Complex Emotion (Science-Based)

Optimism, pessimism, and anxiety detected in birds, pigs, goats, rats, as well as the weird bonds between fish.

I find that one of the hardest arguments to break when a meat eater challenges me, or just expresses a good amount of curiosity about my lifestyle is their unbreakable conviction that animals are ‘animals’ i.e. they don’t understand, think, or feel.

This in a way infuriates, me, while on the other hand it brings me back to the question why would people think that? And again, the answer is very simple – they have been conditioned to accept the belief that ‘this is what a pig was made for – so we can eat it’ (this is what a 19 year old boy recently told me when he realized I don’t eat meat). It is the way society brings us all up, making us build an invisible, but sometimes hard-to-break fence between pets and the rest of the animal kingdom (farm animals and wildlife). I realize that most people are stuck in the perception that these different types of animals almost live in two separate parallel worlds, with the pets being our ‘friends’ while the rest of animal species are simply ‘food’.

It all comes back to educating one another, providing materials, resources and information that slowly, but persistently change people’s perspective, and help them see the truth – animals, just like people are sentient beings.

This is why I ask you not to just pass by this piece and the evidence provided in it – what I show here is an excerpt from an article written by Jonathan Balcombe, a director of animal sentience at the Humane Society Institute for Science and Policy. He contributed this article to Live Science’s Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights, and it is packed with proof-based facts that animals can feel and suffer as much as we do!

Sentience encompasses a universe of positive and negative physical and emotional experiences.

Today, most scientists agree that all vertebrate animals — mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish — are, to varying degrees, sentient. A rich and varied collection of research has made the evidence impossible to dismiss.

Here are

5 Awesome Science-Based Examples Of Complex Animal Emotions Everyone Needs To Know About

1. Depressed birds take a more pessimistic view on life, just like humans do.

5 Unexpected Science-Based Examples Of Complex Animal Emotion You Need To Know AboutImage credit

In a study led by Melissa Bateson of England’s Newcastle University , European starlings were housed for ten days in either socially enriched enclosures with branches and water baths, or alone in smaller, barren cages.

Both sets of birds learned to forage by plucking lids from dishes, each containing a worm. The birds soon learned that dishes with white lids contained tasty worms, whereas dishes with dark gray lids harbored unpalatable (quinine-flavored) worms. Birds from both groups soon stopped flipping the dark gray lids. But when the experimenters began presenting the starlings with ambiguous dishes — lidded with lighter shades of gray — they found that “enriched” birds were more likely than emotionally impoverished birds to flip these new lids and sample the worm inside. Moreover, enriched birds became markedly pessimistic — shunning the ambiguous lids — if they were switched from enriched to impoverished lodgings. The researchers concluded that enriched starlings are more optimistic than impoverished, and presumably less happy, ones.

In a range of studies, rats, pigs, goats, and intriguingly, honey-bees all have shown the same optimism/pessimism response (scientists call it “cognitive bias”) to uncertain outcomes. 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.

2. Baboons grieve if they lose a baby

5 Unexpected Science-Based Examples Of Complex Animal Emotion You Need To Know About

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Baboons also have lasting emotional states. Following the death of an infant, baboon mothers show physiological and behavioral responses that mirror those of bereft women. Glucocorticoid hormones — associated with grief in humans — rise and take a month to subside again, and the bereaved mother monkey seeks therapy by expanding her social network through increased grooming interactions with other baboons.

3. Emotional fever documented in rats and ‘cold-blooded’ reptiles.

Body temperature provides yet another window into feelings. Human body temperatures rise when we are nervous or anxious about an approaching event, such as an exam or a competition. A rat, handled by an unfamiliar person, gets warmer by 1° Celsius or more. If the same person returns to handle the rat over successive days, the rat’s thermal response declines, and by about day five, her body temperature stops rising altogether. If, however, a new handler shows up on the sixth day, the rat’s body temperature rises again, indicating that her temperature changes are psychologically based. This so-called emotional fever has also been documented in turtles and lizards. So much for “cold-blooded” reptiles.

4. Playful octopuses and the bonds between cleaner fish and their clients.


In research by Canadian biologist Jennifer Mather and colleagues, octopuses show curiosity, play and personality. And in a study led by Robert Elwood at Queens University Belfast, prawns spent more time grooming and rubbing a pinched antenna, unless they received a follow-up application of local anesthetic.

Furthermore, fish behave emotionally, showing fear, excitement, anger, pleasure and anxiety. Their brains produce the same compounds that accompany emotions in mammals. It takes 48 hours for fish hormone levels to return to normal after rough handling, such as being caught by anglers and put into small buckets.

On coral reefs, the interactions between cleaner-fish and their clients are rich with awareness and emotion. Cleaners flaunt their bright colors to advertise that they are open for business. Client fish of varied species queue up for their turn for an inspection from the cleaners, who work individually or in pairs, plucking off parasites, algae and other undesirables. Both parties benefit: the cleaners get food, and the clients get a spa treatment. This is not a willy-nilly arrangement. Clients have their favorite cleaners to whom they return repeatedly. Other client fish observe those interactions, keeping accounts of who cleans well and who does a shoddy job. There are good reasons for this so-called “image-scoring” behavior: Some cleaners may nip at the precious mucus that forms a protective shield over the client’s scales. This causes the client fish to jolt, and to sometimes angrily chase the cleaner. Other “cleaners” are scheming impostors, sharp-toothed mimics that look almost identical to cleaners, then nip off a chunk of fin and flee to safety. [If Sharks Feel Pain, Why Are They Not Better Protected? (Op-Ed )]

Careful studies by Swiss researchers led by Redouan Bshary have documented that cleaners cause fewer jolts when potential clients are watching. The cleaners also pamper their patrons by gently caressing them with their fins. Just as touch is therapeutic for humans, so too with fish. In a study from the Marta Soares and colleagues at the University of Lisbon, captive surgeonfish had lower levels of stress hormone when they could sidle up to a mechanical wand that delivered gentle strokes.

5. Dogs ‘read’ our emotions by glancing at the left side of our faces first

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During a recent visit to the Clever Dog Lab at the University of Vienna, I watched a dog select symbols on a computer screen by touching it with his nose. In another room, dogs placed their heads on a chin-rest to watch images projected on a computer screen. These are not purpose-bred “lab dogs,” but happy pets recruited for the studies. The chin-rest apparatus has been used to show that dogs, like us, glance first to the left side of a human face, where our bilateral brains display more emotion. Thus, dogs get a quick read of our moods and intentions. This all happens in a fraction of a second, and like us, dogs probably are unaware they are doing it. Neither they nor we regard a dog’s face this way, which makes sense because dogs’ emotions are expressed uniformly on their faces. The wag of a dog’s tail also contains subtle cues to their moods. Led by Giorgio Vallortigara of the University of Trento, Italian researchers found that dogs remained relaxed when they saw films of dogs whose tails were wagging predominantly to the right, but they became anxious if the tail wagged more to the left.