Afternoon Inquisition 12.10.08

Having always had a pet in my life (that’s my pup to the right), I’ve often wondered about the cognitive and emotional abilities of animals. The prevailing wisdom has been that most of the anthropomorphic characteristics we see in our pets are projection. But my dog seems to love me, or at least be affectionate. And she understands that certain labels apply to certain actions. How can I really know the extent of what she feels and understands?

NPR discussed this issue yesterday in an article entitled Dogs Understand Fairness, Get Jealous, Study Finds. The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, studied the existence of jealousy in dogs by giving unequal rewards for the same behavior. The study found that dogs that were previously happy to perform tricks for mere praise, stopped cooperating when other dogs were given treats for the same behavior. Sulking, it would seem.

How “human-like” do you think the cognitive and emotional abilities of our pets are?

(Feel free to use articles, studies, or just personal experience/opinion.)

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  1. I saw a video the other day, from Chile I believe, of a dog apparently trying to pull his buddy who’d been struck by a car off the freeway to safety.

    I don’t know how human-like that is, as I don’t know how many humans would actually to that for a friend in danger, but it was quite a compelling video. I’ll see if I can find a link.

  2. Okay, just kidding. I thinkt that mammals like dogs and other herd animals do feel something very close to affection. I have seen my mother’s retarded boston terrier display something that really mimics jealousy. It will also pout and ignore her if she doesn’t do something that it has come to expect. My own pound puppy seems to display separation anxiety when we leave and joy and affection when we get home. She also seems to have fun when we play.

  3. I’m not entirely convinced that other people I see have “human like” cognitive and emotional abilities. There seems to be a sliding scale of self awareness.

    My cats seem fairly aware, and each have indisputably individual characteristics. I have learned to recognize various moods and states of emotion in them, ranging from affection to fear (darn vacuum, spoiling their day). I’m not projecting on a cat when he or she leaps into my lap and places his or her head under my hand until I scratch, which results in a purr, closed eyes, and eventual sleep. They do not exhibit this behavior with everyone who comes to my house, which leads me to believe that they are discriminatory.

    Discriminatory behaviors towards different individuals isn’t terribly from human behavior, so I see no practical distinction between one’s assumptions of human motivation versus animal.

  4. “Human-like” … because we are comparing their actions to human actions…?

    But… what if these actions aren’t “human” responses. What if they are “animal” responses? (Humans being animals).

    Makes sense?

  5. From my personal experience with my two fuzzy little bastards (my cats), I’d bet that they probably have similar feelings of jealousy. Feline tantrums occur if I pay more attention to one than the other. As another anecdote, the bigger brat of the two, Loki, seems to try to make *me* jealous sometimes. If I’m not paying enough attention to him (and he doesn’t go the tantrum route), he’ll jump up in my boyfriend’s lap and make a very elaborate show of sucking up to him – which is kind of ruined by the fact that every thirty seconds or so, he’ll pause and look at me as if to make certain I’m paying attention. Now, of course, it’s very possible that I’m just reading too much into this, since that’s a tendency of pet owners everywhere, but it sure feels like he’s trying to make me jealous so that I’ll pay more attention to him. ^^

  6. I think a lot of what we consider to be uniquely human traits are present to some degree in other species. I also think that humans have a tendency to over-anthropomorphize members of other species, especially ones they are emotionally attached to.

    It seems like every quality that we once considered to be the “thing that separates man from beast” is eventually demonstrated in beasts. It’s getting to the point where the only difference is our ability to post comments on skeptic discussion forums.

  7. As I’ve said before: it’s a matter of degree than kind.

    I think that most complex animals have at least some of the basic emotions and some basic thinking capability, too. I think that an animal has to be fairly complex to become self-aware.

    There is considerable evidence that elephants, simians, some species of whales and some bird species are self-aware enough to recognize spots added to their bodies in unviewable places via mirror reflections, find them on their bodies and try to remove them. Magpies have just proven able to notice and remove a spot on their bills that they see on their reflection, for example. (See this month’s Discover and SciAm Mind for the articles.)

    So yes, I think emotions like love, hate, fear, jealousy all exist in animals to some extent. We all came up the evolutionary tree and it makes sense that if emotions are beneficial to humans, they may well be beneficial to other organisms, too.

    As far as intelligence goes, I have seen my Shelties cooperate to steal food from counters (“counter surfing”) and share the spoils together. In that case, they are at least as advanced as politicians in that regard. ;-)

  8. About 10 years ago, I read a book called “When Elephants Weep” about the absurd lengths that the scientific community goes not anthropormophize animals. The question is interesting: Because the ability or inability of animals to emote is not quantifiable or measurable by traditional scientific methods, should the scientific community simply choose to ignore the possibilities and take active steps to presume that animals do not have emotions similar to ours? In the face of uncertainty, established academia and science takes a very species-centric view of the world on this subject. On the other hand, many skeptics often take the default position that if you cannot prove it, then we all should act as though the possibility must not be true.

    The book is at:

  9. @Sam Ogden: @Kaylia_Marie: @marilove:

    Fair question. Some characteristics have been thought to only be possessed by primates, and others have been thought to be uniquely human. The question at the heart of the dog study was whether emotions like jealousy are “uniquely human”.

    Also, “uniquely human” isn’t necessarily a positive thing. Humans have a whole spectrum of emotions – positive and negative. Sam demonstrated a potentially positive one (heroism). The dog study demonstrated a potentially negative one (jealousy). The idea of the study isn’t to categorize humans as better than dogs or vice versa, but just to determine the abilities that each does or doesn’t have.

  10. Two scientists walk into the lab kitchen on a Friday morning, and one says, “I got a dog for my kids this weekend,” and the other responds, “Good trade.”

    (Sorry, couldn’t resist)

  11. I don’t know if I am assigning human traits where there are none or not. My 3 month old puppy and my 3 year old daughter exhibit remarkable similiar traits. Both have make poor choices (especially when playing together), both have something to say back when reprimanded, both seem to have strong feelings of happiness when I come home from work, the list goes on. So from that observation animals do have human like emotion. Disclaimer this study was anecdotal and has not been peer reviewed.

  12. Without language, I think pets have more similarity to humans on an emotional level than on a cognitive level. I’m not sure what thought would be like without language. What kinds of memories can you have? What kind of thoughts about the future? I imagine that my cats are much more “in the present” than I am.

  13. @BlueFrog: Emotions are hard to quantify, but some study of higher cognition (like that of a 4 year old human) has been done. I’m currently reading Alex & Me by Dr. Irene Pepperberg, who did such study on African Grey Parrots. Over 30 years, the trials she put him through seemed to demonstrate that he understood that labels applied to certain objects, could count up to 7, and was able to answer a series of questions about the same group of objects. Consistently accuately. All things he wasn’t supposed to be able to do.

  14. If you have read Temple Grandin’s work, her contention is that the higher animals think like autistic humans, in that they think in pictures, not words. She has quite a bit of evidence to back her contention up, including the fact the she is autistic herself.

    I’ve tested some of her observations on my dogs and have not found any contradictions so far.

  15. I used to think pictorially a lot, and I still do sometimes. But the more I write, the more I find myself thinking in words and sentences. It’s really a strange sensation when I catch myself.

  16. @Steve DeGroof: Thank you for sharing that, Steve. I only recently starting reading about
    Alex, but I have both admiration for the work Dr. Pepperberg did with him and affection for the little guy. It’s a tragedy that he died so young for a Grey…who knows what more he could have accomplished.

  17. I agree with a lot with what has already been said. We probably do share a lot of the same emotional cognitive emotions with our pets, especially when you consider it in the context of evolution. We share a lot of physical traits with our mammalian brothers in the animal kingdom. Why? Because our common ancestors had them and after splitting certain traits change but the basic design is still there. Just like our physical traits our emotions may have started with common ancestors that we share with other animals (mammals especially). Emotions may contract or expand, or rather the degree to which emotions express themselves depends on what is evolutionarily advantageous for a specific species, but the range of emotions is still there.

    I think there is an extra layer to this idea in cats and dogs, in that they evolved along side humans. (One side note before I continue on this rambling idea, there is no such thing as “natural selection” and “artificial selection”, there is only “selection” in that there is an outside force setting the standards of evolutionary success.)In the past humans set the standards of success by subconsciously selecting individual cats and dogs for a myriad of things, one of which (and I’m not sure but I believe is a contentious idea in evolutionary biology) was selecting for individuals that mimic us or expressed their emotions to a similar degree to which we do.

    Of course this is all a theory, God may have actually just blinked us into existence 6,000 years ago and figured we needed a Fido who smiles back at us.

  18. My take is that they’re all dumb with quite small brains and only very limited “emotional” responses to needs being met or fear stimulus. My wife has horses and boy are those guys thick and really stupid. However little girls have insisted for millennia that they are the sweetest, brightest and most wonderful creatures in the world. I think the more a pet owner projects human characteristics on their pet the worse off the pet and the owner.

    The whole jealousy thing with regard to dogs could easily be explained as anxiety related to potential loss of pack status or pecking order. Hard to imagine its much more than that. Cats are still not really domesticated I’ve read because they do not have a sense of hierarchy; and the reason dogs have been domesticated is because humans have been able to become alpha pack leader to dogs. Selecive breedign has llikely made this trait more dominant.

  19. @Sam Ogden: Yes, the Clever Hans effect is addressed in Dr. Pepperberg’s book, and Dr. P was very careful to keep her relationship with Alex emotionally distant and professional. She bought Alex at a pet store and had the clerk there select which bird she got. She kept him at the lab, not at her house. She treated him, professionally and emotionally, as a colleague, not a pet. And she was, by far, not the only one to work with him – she had teams of grad students working with him as well.

  20. @writerdd: “I used to think pictorially a lot, and I still do sometimes.”

    I don’t think pictorial thought came naturally to me. I distinctly remember in grade 3, our teacher asked us to close our eyes and picture something. I thought she was crazy. You can’t see things with your eyes closed. Sure, I could think about things. I knew that a grapefruit was round, yellow and about that big but I couldn’t see one in my mind.

    It was only much later that I was able to visualize things. In that class, though, I ended up bluffing my way through it since everyone else seemed to be doing it.

    Come to think of it, I’m pretty sure I faked having an imaginary friend too.

  21. @Stacey: In consideration of my affinity for dogs like your Pup and your intellectual curiosity in African Grey Parrots, perhaps we should join our pets together in the same household? … Strictly for scientific purposes, of course.

  22. My dog definitely diplays “guilt”. And it’s not just tuning into my voice. I’ve seen the bowed head and reluctance to come to me before I even discovered what she’d done wrong.
    As for affection, dogs are pack animals, so a lot of what they display is pack behavior (social status, need for affection to be accepted as part of the pack, etc.)
    Of course, couldn’t a lot of human behavior be described in the same way? Social status, need for affection, be accepted in a social group, etc.

  23. @TheSkepticalMale: By “are” I merely mean “be”, which is why I felt it necessary to use the modify “never” to be clear. And you know what I’m talking about…I’m talking about what you were talking about. :)

  24. @Stacey: Oh, good, I was talking about (or more appropriately, referring to) your sexy use of the English language … And you being naked.

  25. Dr. Pepperberg’s research was groundbreaking, such that she had trouble getting funding because “Everyone knows birds are birdbrains.” Turns out everyone knew except Alex, who proceeded to completely revolutionize animal intelligence research by showing Dr. Pepperberg how wrong “everyone” was.

    I had heard anecdotal information about their intelligence from friends that owned African Greys before I read up on her research. Now, I wouldn’t own one, because I’d be wondering if my parrot was smart enough to be considered a sentient being. And remember, I’m NOT a PETA sympathizer.

    @Ssteppe: Be careful – A lot of people get really upset when one suggests that we aren’t the independent agents we think we are. I’m convinced that humans are just as susceptible to hormonal, pheromonal and “pack” influences as other animals. It could be an explanation for human behaviors like “groupthink,” the madness of crowds, etc.

    @James Fox: I used to feel the same way that you do, but one of the interesting things that Dr. Pepperberg’s (and now some other’s) research implies that brain size alone does not necessarily correlate with intelligence. The synapse connection density seems to make a big difference in how that brain functions. The hypothesis is that a smaller, extremely densely connected brain may perform as well or better than a larger, but less densely connected brain. This is actually one hypothesis advanced for why parrots and some other similar birds exhibit much more intelligent behavior than one would expect from brain size alone.

  26. It’s getting to the point where the only difference is our ability to post comments on skeptic discussion forums.

    Somebody should get Koko a keyboard… ;-)

    Seriously, Kaylia Marie’s got it — not only mammals, but birds as well, have a wide range of basic social drives and operations — status (dominance/submission), affection/relationship (during infancy, if nowhere else), threat/defense, and so on. Naturally, there’s wide variation in the emphasis and elaboration of these, and not all the social systems are compatible.

    Dogs are “man’s best friend” not just because of their intelligence, but because they matched us fairly well in both basic ecological niche (scavengers-hunters) and social structure (tribe/pack). (I suspect that the first of these strongly influenced the second in both cases.) So they could live next to us, and later among us, with minimal friction….

    (Why we don’t often make pets of monkeys or apes is a longer story, but the upshot is they’re too much like us, and they tend to question who’s in charge….)

  27. @QuestionAuthority: I expect research may find that the dense synapse connections of some animals are mostly used to facilitate the hyper vigilant state and sense acuity most wild animals need to maintain for survival as opposed to cognitive processes. The number of reactions and environmental circumstances a bird must process and react to certainly would require fast and dense synaptic processing, but higher reasoning is another matter altogether. But then again I may be wrong.

  28. A bit more detail on what a number of commenters said regarding emotions can be found here: A little info on cats intelligence can be found here:

    My two Orange Tabbys, Charger and Loki (The Meowmeisters), certainly seem to display all the emotions I can think of at various times. I can think of specific examples for each one. Loki has a more varied vocabulary (many different meows), and it’s easy to tell what he’s feeling and what he wants by his meows. On the other hand, Charger is better at showing me (leading me) when he has something on his mind, including (unfortunately) when he wants me to chase lizards and geckos with him (silly cat!). Why Charger thinks I’d like to hunt lizards and geckos is beyond me. But as far as I’ve seen, neither Meowmeister has expressed a sense of humor.

    What would be really cool is if they could surgically be given hands similar to a humans which they could use to manipulate their environment with as humans do. I’d love to watch what they would walk around and do. They would certainly be able to show what kind of intelligence they have then!

  29. Knrul: What would be really cool is if they could surgically be given hands similar to a humans which they could use to manipulate their environment with as humans do.


  30. I almost went into the field of animal behavior, but found many of my professors too stuck up for my taste. I agree with QuestionAuthority that it is a difference of degree and not kind. In an evolutionary context, I think it only makes sense that other animals would have similar emotions. However, it is hard to investigate how non-human animals experience emotions because we can’t imagine what it is like to be another animal. We don’t experience our environment or “umwelt” in the same way from vision and other senses to information processing and emotions. So it is really unknowable at this point.

    I find Dr. Pepperberg’s work very interesting, and she is why I got interested in animal cognition. However, it’s my understanding that the scientific community doesn’t view her work as substantial because she hasn’t been able to replicate to the same extent what she did with Alex in any of the other birds she has worked with. They think he may be another Clever Hans or just a remarkable bird. Overall, there are many different scientific opinions in this field. Even the “spot test” is disputed as an accurate measure of self awareness.

    One good book on animal cognition is Animal Cognition: The Mental Lives of Animals

  31. Well they certainly know fear, of the dog is being particularly unruly pointing at him and shouting “VET!” has a very potent effect, and the cat is truely teriffied of the vaccum cleaner for some inexplicable reason.

    I suspect primates and animals who have been bread to be our companions have some capacity (Higher Primates certainly) for limited emotional response.

    But Cats and Dogs probably not as great as we think, most likely it’s a glitch in our evolved ability to comprehend “agency” in others. The same ability that allows us to appriciate other people have a mind as well as ourselves, leads us to think our pets are like little people and get angry and inanimate objects.

    Companion animals who displayed the beginings of this trait would have been selected for breeding by man many years ago and it became exagerrated in them.

    Knowing all this, I still talk to the cat and dog as if they can understand me.

  32. Knurl: Seriously, “prehensile hands” are another reason we don’t often keep monkeys or apes as pets — my Mom still tells war stories about the kinkajou she and Dad had before we kids came along….

    SkepticalMale: Pfft… you just say that because they don’t orient themselves around you…. ;-)

    It’s worth noting that, besides temperament, upbringing matters a lot! My cat was hand-weaned and treated almost like a baby for her first year (prior owner). That makes her very affectionate!

  33. @russellsugden:

    Companion animals who displayed the beginings of this trait would have been selected for breeding by man many years ago and it became exagerrated in them.

    And so what is amazing about Alex is that parrots are still wild animals, essentially. They have not been bread for centuries into domesticity. It is also the reason why parrots are oversold as pets and the aviaries are filled with unwanted and/or abused birds.

  34. @TheSkepticalMale: Cats are not nearly as domesticated as dogs, and still have quite a bit of their feral instinct. By that nature, they’re reluctant to show anything they think will show weakness. They’ll show the range of emotions with their owner, unless they feel threatened by the owner. Even with an owner they trust, they try to hide illness because to show illness would show possible weakness. They’re apathetic in that they will often suppress emotion, but they’re rarely unobservant.

  35. @David Harmon: Quite seriously, I wasn’t really serious. However, it would be interesting if Charger had hands.

    I got Charger when he was just over one month old and had to feed him from a baby bottle until he could eat regular food. He learned about solid food and the litter box from my other cat Bennie (deceased). Charger greets everyone at the door, and wants to be friends. My vetrenarian brother and sister-in-law told me they’ve only seen a couple cats as mellow. Loki is a little different. I took in him at six months from a 19 year old that had parties all the time. Loki is now four, and fine with me but nobody else. A horror movie could be based on Loki with hands.

    Your comment about TheSkepticalMale is probably true.

  36. It’s obvious that non-human animals have emotions. To what degree, I’m not sure, nor am I sure “how many” they have. I’m pretty sure they don’t agonize over them as much as we do. There are certainly different levels of cognitive functions among different species, with some of those species being aware of the concept of self…anyway, I think we’ll just have to wait and see as more research comes out in this field.

    The point I wanted to bring up, mainly, is horses. One commenter above mentioned horses as stupid animals, and owning horses myself, I am sometimes inclined to agree. I never thought horses had the same level of cognitive ability as, say…a dog, or other reasonably intelligent animal, due to their natural behavior and environment. Why would they need very developed thinking skills as being the flighty herd animals they are? Just yesterday, however, I came across a magazine article about a place that does research with horses, and it turns out that horses are pretty darn smart. At least, smarter than I would have thought! They can categorize stimuli based on size, or whether or not the shape has a hollow center or not…they even have the ability to apply rules they have learned to novel situations, such as new objects, or knowing that a picture of an object on a screen is equivalent to the actual object. They also have wonderful long term memories, and horses that have participated in the study at one point have come back as much as 10 years later and still remember the behaviors.

    Horses! They’re amazing. if you want to check out the site. As a disclaimer, I haven’t read any of their scientific papers yet, so I don’t know how much positive spin they may have placed on their results…but uhh…I’ll get back to you?

  37. Oh man, this thread is like catnip to me, I’m sorry I’m so late to the party. Basically, as a cat geek, I just want to point out that I have experienced no major differences in cat personalities based on whether they were reared by hand or not. Rusty was my most affectionate cat, born and raised completely feral. My dad had to wear gloves to catch him he was so unwilling to go home with us. He turned into a drooling “hugger.” He just wanted to spend all his time on your lap, anyone but my dad’s anyway, head butting your face and purring loudly.

    Casper, my cat now, was given to us at six weeks. He has separation anxiety and some behavioural issues as a result. It’s easier for a mother cat to teach her kittens to deal with discipline than to learn it from people. He also never learned to deal with other cats, and so he was always abused by my mom and sister’s cats. He’s needy, but not as openly affectionate as other cats I’ve known.

    The kitten I just got was thrown from a moving vehicle, but she wasn’t bottle fed, either. She’s not happy unless she’s on my lap. This makes Casper visibly unhappy. He was never really a lap cat, but mine is the only one he ever occasionally sits on, and its currently taken.

    The cats I’ve known have all been very complex creatures. It’s not as simple as rearing. It just really bugs me when people insist on getting tiny kittens. They really shouldn’t be taken from their mother until they’re 12 months old at the very least. I think its vain to justify the choice as wanting a cat that’s totally emotionally dependent on you. Hand rearing is no guarantee of lifelong devotion, and we all know what happens to the cats that fail to meet expectations.

  38. I just want to add that I’m kind of a crusader for a factually based understanding of cats. I have a low tolerance for misconceptions and fervently defended myths about felines.

    I’m not sure to what degree they are self aware, but I find the question fascinating. The answer doesn’t change my feelings about them. We should always love things for what they actually are, not what we want or need them to be.

  39. And since I’m mostly talking to myself, Casper usually lays around the house on his back, expecting belly kisses/rubs. He cries and stares at me for long periods if I’m not lavishing him with attention but he doesn’t really try very hard to distract me otherwise. At my parents’ house, or around other cats, he stiffens up. He sits in the “cat loaf” position and feels very firm to the touch, whereas normally he feels very plush and soft. He avoids eye contact and sighs loudly and won’t purr and even seems unhappy to be touched.

    This is how he is about the kitten, but only if I’m paying attention to her.

    Also, I could swear his litterbox is more rank immediately after he uses it (the kitten having her own in another room entirely).

  40. Well,

    Someone once told me that, I probably don’t let my life revolve around my pets, but they definitely revolve there lives around me!

    I’ve found this to be true and I try to be understanding, even if it does get old fast.

    For instance, I don’t just “make” breakfast.

    To them, I “create” breakfast and it’s a rock star type event, every day, no matter how tired, or sick, I may be, etc.

    Starting at around Fivish, they start hovering around my bed and they explode whenever I get up.

    The same is true when I come home from work and “create” dinner. What would they do without me?!

    What would I do without them?

    I don’t even want to imagine,


    Yep, time to start having doggie safe birthday cake and making them wear little party hats. I’m getting that senile…

  41. Late to this one, and talking off the top of my head.

    My dog Dog is pretty smart, and has an emotional life. He seems, at various times, happy, sad, angry, frustrated, lonely, frightened, and content. And I have no reason to think that his emotional state when he’s acting frightened is much different than mine.

    On the other hand, Dog is a dog. He understands English pretty well for a dog, but he’s a dog. He doesn’t have the same emotional needs as a person, he has the emotional needs of a dog. I can’t explain things to him like I would a person. I have to use motivators and corrections that are appropriate to a dog.

    What I think is that Dog knows that there is a dog. And he has a mental map of his world and his place in our social structure. I think he has some abstractions, in the sense that certain gestures or sounds stand for certain things (although he’s pretty bad with recognizing objects). But basically, he only speaks dog, which seems to be a limited language of smells and sounds and gestures. And I don’t really speak dog, so its hard to say what it’s like to think in it.

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