Have you ever wondered whether animals feel emotions like we do? On this page, we explore what emotions are, look at some scientific research and answer the all-important question ‘do animals feel emotions?’.
What are emotions?
What are emotions is a hard question, so hard in fact that scientists can’t agree on an answer . The dictionary says emotions are “a feeling such as happiness, love, fear, anger, or hatred, which can be caused by the situation that you are in or the people you are with” . So, that means they are our response to things that happen to us. For example, if you cuddle a puppy, you feel happy, but if you argue with a friend, you feel sad or angry.
Emotions produce physiological responses in us, such as a racing heart, and behavioural ones, such as a smile, frown, or scream . It’s these reactions that show others around us what we are feeling.
Do animals feel emotions?
In 2018 a female killer whale carried around her dead calf for over two weeks. A show of grief and sadness? We think so, and we’re not the only ones .
It’s a hard topic to study though. People have argued about whether animals feel emotions for decades, asking questions such as ‘how can you tell if an animal is experiencing emotion?’ They can’t tell us. The ability to feel emotion also varies with species. They aren’t all the same – a spiders view of the world is very different from that of dogs!
The short answer though is, yes, animals do feel emotions. You only need to look at a dog wagging its tail to see that, but it is backed up with research too, some of which we’ll look at below. Animals get excited, happy, and scared in the same way we do. Humans are animals after all .
Scientists have studied emotions in many species, so let’s look at a few.
Emotions in pigs
In 2013 a study on pigs found that individuals display behaviours linked to negative emotions when anticipating or having a bad experience, which in this case was separation from others. These behaviours included freezing, putting their ears back and holding their tails low. Positive behaviours, such as playing, barking and tail movements, were seen before or during a good experience – being given company and access to a pen filled with straw, peat and chocolate raisins. The study also found that trained animals passed emotions onto untrained ones that didn’t know whether good or bad experiences were coming . This shows that the emotions of one pig can impact others, a fact that is very important when considering animal welfare and farming as many animals are kept close together. Results are backed up in other research on pigs too, such as .
Emotions in bees
Bees may not be the first animal that comes to mind when you think emotions but in 2016 scientists made a discovery – bees may feel happy when given a treat. Going on the theory that humans respond to new situations more optimistically when happy and recover from negative ones quicker, scientists tested how bees react after being given a sugary treat. They first trained bees to associate particular areas and colours with sugary water or plain water. Then, they gave some bees sugary water, some plain water and opened up a new space with a new colour. Bees given the sugar visited the new area quicker than those that were only given normal water, suggesting they were more optimistic about the possibility of getting a sugary treat. Both those given plain and sugary water took the same amount of time to visit the known areas. After a treat, bees also recovered quicker and started feeding sooner after a simulated predator attack [8, 9].
Emotions in fish
Our final case study looks at fish. Research published in 2017 looks at whether sea bream react physiologically and behaviourally to positive and negative experiences. Emotional states were identified by measuring levels of the stress hormone cortisol, by monitoring brain activity and by assessing escape behaviours. Results show that sea bream react differently to the same event depending on whether they perceive it as positive or negative [10, 11].
Why study emotions in animals?
Emotions are fascinating. Interest isn’t the only reason to study them in animals though. Understanding how animals feel and react to different situations can help us improve the lives of those in our care.
 T. Scheff, “What Are Emotions? A Physical Theory,” Review of General Psychology, vol. 19, no. 4, pp. 458-464, 2015.
 Collins English Dictionary, “Emotion,” March 2019. [Online]. Available: https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/emotion.
 K. Cherry, “Emotions and types of emotional responses,” March 2019. [Online]. Available: https://www.verywellmind.com/what-are-emotions-2795178.
 L. Cuthbert, “Orca mourning her calf shows the complexity of killer whale emotions,” August 2018. [Online]. Available: https://www.nationalgeographic.co.uk/animals/2018/08/orca-mourning-her-calf-shows-complexity-killer-whale-emotions.
 M. Bekoff, The emotional lives of animals: A leading scientist explores animal joy, sorrow, and empathy — and why they matter, Novato, California: New World Library, 2010.
 I. Reimert, J. E. Bolhuis, B. Kemp and T. B. Rodenburg, “Indicators of positive and negative emotions and emotional contagion in pigs,” Physiology & Behavior, vol. 109, pp. 42-50, 2013.
 I. Reimert, J. E. Bolhuis, B. Kemp and T. B. Rodenburg, “Emotions on the loose: emotional contagion and the role of oxytocin in pigs,” Animal Cognition, vol. 18, no. 2, pp. 517-532, 2015.
 E. Benson, “Don’t worry, bee happy: Bees found to have emotions and moods,” September 2016. [Online]. Available: https://www.newscientist.com/article/2107546-dont-worry-bee-happy-bees-found-to-have-emotions-and-moods/. [Accessed March 2019].
 C. J. Perry, L. Baciadonna and L. Chittka, “Unexpected rewards induce dopamine-dependent positive emotion-like 1state changes in bumblebees,” Science, vol. 353, no. 6307, pp. 1529-1531, 2016.
 Phys.org, “Emotional states discovered in fish,” October 2017. [Online]. Available: https://phys.org/news/2017-10-emotional-states-fish.html. [Accessed April 2019]
 M. Cerqueira, M. Millot, M. F. Castanheira, A. S. Félix, T. Silva, G. A. Oliveira, C. C. Oliveira, C. I. M. Martins and R. F. Oliveira, “Cognitive appraisal of environmental stimuli induces emotion-like states in fish,” Scientific Reports, vol. 7, 2017.