• Chante McCoy

If You’re Happy and You Know It, Flap Your Ears

Updated: Feb 1, 2019

Do animals have feelings?

How you answer this question likely determines how you treat them.

Is there a way to know? Personally, the “truth” seems obvious, gleaned from observation alone: animals are emotional beings with unique personalities. Fortunately, scientists are increasingly on board with more than anecdotal evidence. Psychological phenomenon can be observed and measured (in hormone levels, which are correlated with human emotions), and evidence is mounting in favor of rich, in-depth emotions experienced by our fellow creatures, who are self-aware, feel a range of emotions, develop family bonds, and act altruistically at times.

Family Bonds and Social Relationships

Elephants, orangutans, wolves, horses, and chickens are just a few known to have complex familial relations, even with extended family. They are social, maintaining and negotiating relationships and developing life-long bonds. Social animals have to problem solve by virtue of living with others, including reciprocation, cooperation, and even manipulation. Social bonds are so important that animals will endanger themselves to maintain them, such as meerkats staying with sick and dying relatives, despite imminent danger.

Cattle have complex social dynamics, preferably among herds of about 100, in which they choose leaders based on intelligence and good social skills. Orcas imitate, teach, and have unique cultures amongst stable matrilineal social groups.


Emotions are most notable among social animals, including mammals, birds, and fish. Animals have to navigate the emotional states of others, not merely go through life by thoughtless instinct. Emotions are social glue.

Animals express various emotions, from jealousy, affection, anger, and happiness to despair and grief. They engage in play for pure joy, raising their dopamine levels as we do. They express their emotional states via changes in facial expression, body language, and vocalizations, responses involving higher brain centers in the cerebral cortex.

Birds, for example, emit soft notes like lullabies as they tend their nestlings, harsh calls to intimidate enemies, and mournful cries when intruders raid their nests. Wolves’ tails wag loosely as they whine and jump when reunited. Elephants flap their ears and spin when happy. Felines growl when annoyed or angry. In fear, cattle go to extraordinary lengths to fight for their lives.

Many also appear to fall in love, preferring the company of one companion whom they affectionately touch, often staying loyal for life. Once one dies, the other may die soon after (unlike humans who are only 1.4 times more likely to die upon the death of a mate), or simply not reattach again to another. Chemically, they have elevated levels of oxytocin, the hormone that affects romantic and maternal bonding.

At loss of an offspring or companion, they grieve. Grief can be so consuming that an animal no longer eats and dies. Animals struggle to save the dead, particularly infants, sometimes standing guard over the deceased for days. Coyotes, elephants, and primates are among those noted for expressing pain at loss. Many tales of grief-stricken dogs exist too. On dairy farms, cows frantically call for their babes who are removed for veal and to keep their own milk for human consumption.


Animals can be cooperative, compassionate, and empathetic. Bonobo monkeys will share food with strange bonobos, even when they could choose to keep it for themselves. Rats will free restrained cage mates, even if it means sharing beloved chocolate. Dogs often adopt orphaned animals, including other species. Dolphins will support injured animals (including humans), swimming with them for hours and pushing them to the surface, so they can breathe. Bats will regurgitate food for sick or unlucky bats unable to find food for themselves.


It shouldn't be surprising that animals are emotional beings. Even if one supposes their emotional experiences are different from ours, it’s still evident they feel and want to be with family.

As for me, I’m happy to have scientific evidence that my dogs care back and I’m not just projecting emotions onto them. We are indeed one big loving family.


Published in Pets in the City Magazine, June 2013

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