In 1998, I left my dog with my family when I moved to Nebraska. Chuckles spent the next few days moping. He picked at his food. At walk time, he dragged on his leash. When I visited six months later, his joy at seeing me was a sight to behold. His whole body quivered and shook. Then he took off running, back-and-forth through the house, belting out a high-pitched bark the entire time. There’s no question in my mind that Chuckles had missed me. Nor is there any question that he felt great happiness at seeing me again.
The question of whether pets have emotions is a topic of debate these days among behavioral experts because science relies on numerical data, but emotions aren’t easily quantified or measured. For the rest of us, the answer lies in anecdotal evidence, of which there’s a great abundance. The rest of my article includes examples from local pet owners.
Some pets have demonstrated great bravery. April White had just come home and she could hear the loud “clung-ka-clunk” noise from the washing machine becoming off-center during its spin cycle. She looked down to see Sal all puffed up on full-alert mode. When he saw April, he began to meow loudly. But that’s not all. When April began to walk towards the washing machine to turn it off, Sal bit down on the bottom of her pants cuff and proceeded to pull her away. He didn’t want her to go anywhere near the scary machine. “It was super brave, super sweet, and one of the many reasons we love him.”
Jeannine Beer’s dog is a 60lb border collie mix who can’t stand gun fire. When Murphy hears it, his tail drops between his legs and he immediately heads for the nearest crate. Last winter, during a tracking run at Branched Oak, there were shotgun blasts just over the hill. “After comforting him for a few minutes, he finished the track beautifully…. then made a beeline for the car and his crate. He was very brave and did it for me.”
A small one-year-old, she just looked so menacing but she used her ‘words’ instead of violence and it turned out alright for everyone.–Alison Young
Alison Nicole Young’s cat once cockily marched across the street to confront a large orange male cat in the neighbor’s driveway. Persephone “stomped right up to him while growling, seemingly to ask what the heck he thought he was doing there”. To his credit, he just ignored her. After a few minutes, Persephone apparently decided the cat was all right because she sheepishly returned to her own yard.
When I was still living in my home province of Newfoundland, our family had an equally bold dog. One day visitors came by while my dad was out. Choco slipped out the door when I was letting them in. I raced after him and found that he’d barged straight up to a dog twice his size. Somehow, despite his tendency towards such reckless bluster, Choco managed to live to the old age of fourteen.
A friend and I have swapped stories about how our pets will react to our distress. For example, I grew up with a dog that growled at anyone who raised their voice at me. In contrast, my husband and I now have a dog who will shake and cower if we talk loudly or animatedly. Even our three cats will sometimes flee the room. My friend and I have cats who will comfort us if we’re in pain. One of my most poignant memories is of the time that my youngest cat, in reaction to hearing me cry, curled atop me and put her paws in my hands.
Pets also experience stress all on their own. Rhonda Ford told me about her eight-month-old cat and her first thunderstorm. There were huge claps of thunder and the electricity even went out. During all this, Boots kept pacing the length of the hallway, meowing plaintively, different than normal. “We figured out she is very afraid of the sound of thunder. Now at age 15, when she hears the thunder, she hides behind our couch until she doesn’t hear it anymore. Then all is good again.”
Ironically, our youngest cat, who is normally the boldest of our pet clan, is the most afraid of noises. My husband and I originally thought nothing about being away on vacation during Independence Day. Except then we found out from our pet sitters that Rainy was so frightened by the frequent explosions that she stopped eating. She became so sick that she had to be treated by a vet. Over time, we’ve come to discover that even the sound a nail gun stapler will send her fleeing and cowering under the sanctuary of our bedsheets.
A dog that I raised while still in Newfoundland seemed to have been born anxious. The sight of any living thing, or even a rustling paper would elicit growls from him. I didn’t know much back then about pairing treats with introductions to help dogs overcome their shyness. At one point, his fears were so bad that Chuckles would choke if anything startled him during a meal. He did eventually mellow in his old age.
There are a host of other emotional reactions that pets have too. Katie Lundy shared a story of her Husky, Sophie, that I’m sure will strike a chord with many dog owners. One day her fiancé was at Katie’s apartment with Sophie while Katie was at work. When her fiancé stepped out onto the balcony, where it seemed as if he were out of sight, Sophie immediately retrieved a bag of bread that she’d earlier hidden under the sofa. When Sophie heard the balcony door open, she quickly hid the bread under the sofa and jumped onto the sofa as if nothing had happened. “He watched her dig it out and hide it again twice before finally taking it away from her, just because he was so impressed by how cunning she was.”
Katie described the above as “just a funny story about intelligence”. Maybe it is. But I also think it points to the fact that at least to a certain extent our pets know from right from wrong. When my husband and I come home, we always know if our dog did something he shouldn’t have. Instead of begging us for attention, Barnaby will hang back and even avoid eye contact. As for our cats, they flee the moment that they know we’ve caught them trying to steal food.
I started this article by telling you about how sad my dog would be to see me leave and how happy he’d be when I returned. Thus, it seems fitting to end two similar stories. The first story comes from Carla Ann Woeppel. She described her cat Pnut as her baby. “She slept with me, brought me snakes (gross), and loved me.” Sadly, when Carla left for college, Pnut didn’t handle the change well. When Carla would return home for visits, Pnut would shun her or even hiss at her. “It’s like she felt betrayed and abandoned.”
The second story comes from Chris Porter. Two years ago, she and her husband adopted a 14-year-old cat named Nor”Burt”. (Yes, the double quotes are part of his name.) Chris described him as a cream-colored, long-haired kitty with a distinct personality. When the couple would wrap him in a towel and try to cut his razor-sharp nails, the result would be untrimmed claws for him and many scratches for them. As soon as he was free from his towel, he’d walk away, pause, then turn around and seem to frown at them. After that, he’d walk up to a wall and stare at it for a long time. “Nothing, not even his favorite treats were acknowledged. Eventually, he forgave us. He was such a remarkable cat. When he passed away, we went looking for another just like him, another cat who’d ignore us if he had enough.”
The issue of whether animals have emotions is an issue that intrigues me. You see, I believe that how we view animals is directly linked to how we treat them. If we believe that animals have no emotions, it’s easy to ignore their needs. That’s what leads to misbehavior, which is one of the leading causes of relinquishment. It’s also easy to dismiss “unfeeling” animals as disposable, and to not feel heartache over the millions that are killed each year in shelters. If instead we view them as sentient creatures who can feel joy and sorrow, then we’ll take the time to train them and to fight for the day when all pets will have homes.