Imagine, what would life be without emotions? Emotions are a state of consciousness that coincide with physiological changes. Our emotions affect mood and how we interact with our environment. They both reinforce and punish behavior. They can be deciding factors in our decisions to perform a behavior again or prevent us engaging in a situation.

It has been a long-term debate on whether animals have emotions. Anyone loving an animal will usually quickly tell you that yes, they do. Do they feel love, joy, excitement, anger, fear, anxiety, sadness, depression, etc? Recent studies in science have shown that yes, they do.

The key question is “Are we able to accurately read the animal’s body language to know which emotion it is feeling?” Many times we begin understanding an emotion by relating the body language to our own. This can work in our favor or not. For example, overstimulation can quickly result in a bite. That bite could be interpreted as an act of aggression. We can see overstimulation in play. If the play results in a bite, and excitement is read as anger, we get confused in how a happy animal gets upset during play which could likely result in the engagement of play being punished. They key is to better understand in reading our animal’s body language and we can do that through training. Training is teaching. Teaching is learning. Learning is a form of communication and better communication results in building a better relationship with that animal and that animal with us.

If we can better understand the emotions of animals, we would be able to better treat behavior issues or concerns. I love to see empowered animals. I want to see animals having choices and a sense of control over their environment. We do this through enrichment. Enrichment empowers the animal both physically and mentally. Enrichment can have an effect on emotions such as excitement and joy while redirecting sadness, loneliness, and depression. This is why I train animals using positive reinforcement and Applied Behavior Analysis. Studies show that if using positive reinforcement training, it is the animal’s preferred form of enrichment.

There are many emotions that can be prevented within our animal’s emotional experiences. There are many psychological problems that are induced when animals are taken away from their parents at a young age. We see this in dogs, primates, parrots, pigs, and many more. With most animals, their parents teach them crucial, life-surviving skills at a young age. Parents of different species can communicate with their young better than we can. They teach them behaviors for a successful future. A future potentially with us.

Socialization can be one of the most complex forms of enrichment we can provide an animal, whether that is socialization with humans or other animals of the same species. Often times we see highly social animals kept or housed individually. What emotional states and behavior concerns does this induce? I have several social species housed individually for several different reasons, with safety is at the top of the list. This is where enrichment and training plays an important role in the animal’s quality of life. I encourage vocal and visual enrichment between the animals in close proximity and in distances. I reinforce this with my attention and approval while slowly fading myself out of the equation. This causes them to begin interacting with each other, especially when I am not around. This also helps prevent separation anxiety.

Separation anxiety is one of the toughest situations to live with. It doesn’t have to be hard to modify but the behavior consequences of separation anxiety can be extreme such as excessive barking, screaming, abnormal repetitive behaviors, and self mutilation. The longer the history separation anxiety is knowingly or unknowingly reinforced, the more likely it will have to remain on a maintenance plan. Many people unknowingly reinforce separation anxiety by not letting the animal spend time without them. People thinking their animals cannot be happy without them. This doesn’t have to be and is not fair for the animal when our lives happen.

The late neuroscientist and psychobiologist Jaak Panksepp, aka “the rat tickler” discovered laughter in rats. His research in interaction and laughter in rats helped design medication to help treat human depression. As he states, when we take the time to better understand emotions in animals, we are one step closer in understanding our own behavior.

Every Sunday at 9am Eastern I live-stream my episode “Coffee With The Critters” from The Animal Behavior Center’s Facebook page. Here is my episode on “Do Animals Have Emotions” dedicated to the work of Jaak Panksepp. Yes, animals do help emotions and I will have a future episode on how the strong emotional relationships I have with my animals helped saved the life of the one I hold most dear.