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A study from the University of Portsmouth (U.K.) looked at whether familiarity with companion animals influences people’s perceptions of emotions in other species.

Study Summary

A “belief in animal mind” has been established as a major factor when human beings consider whether other species have mental capacities that make them worthy of ethical considerations. This study focused on a questionnaire given to 200 people, some of whom shared their homes with companion animals and some who did not. They were asked whether they attributed any of 14 different emotions to dogs, horses and rodents. There were variations in attributions by species and familiarity with that species, and differences in the perception of primary (joy, curiosity, anger, fear, affection, sadness and disgust) and secondary (embarrassment, shame, empathy, guilt, pride, grief and jealousy) emotions. The authors noted that “ownership of animals was found to be the most important influence on the reporting of emotions in animals,” and that “belief in animal emotions in likely to influence how animals are treated.”

Policy Implications

Although some argue that keeping a “pet” is a form of animal exploitation, most animal protection advocates favor the practice of keeping companion animals for a number of reasons:

  1. Adopting a companion animal literally is a life-saver for that animal, given the continuing (although diminishing) problem of companion animal overpopulation.

  2. The benefits of companion animals to human health, sociality, and general well-being are well-documented, although often with exaggerated claims.

3.  Current scientific views favor the idea that companion animals, particularly the dog, co-evolved, (at least in an evolutionary sense they benefited from their relationship with us).

This study has the broader implication that a benefit of the practice of the human-companion animal relationship is that animal caregivers are more likely to believe that animals have emotions than are people who do not live with a companion animal.

  • Ken Shapiro, Jill Howard Church

Morris, P., Knight S., & Lesley, S. (2012). Belief in animal mind: Does familiarity with animals influence beliefs about animal emotions? Society & Animals, 20, 3, 211-225.

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