Pet owners describe selves and pets with same emotions

Scientists identified ranges of animal emotions and associated behaviors, as described by pet owners. Those same pet owners also noted their own emotions while interacting with their pets.

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(Photo by Andrea Gantz)
(Photo by Andrea Gantz)

Pets' behaviors communicate emotions to humans in various ways, despite our lack of a common tongue. A dog with tail wagging and tongue lolling certainly looks happy to see her dinner and the owner delivering it. However, what people perceive of emotions in dogs, cats and other creatures can pass through the lens of anthropomorphism. People may assume animal behaviors reflect internal emotional experiences for those animals that are similar to how people would feel if behaving similarly. An exited puppy and a rambunctious child may seem similar, but the puppy’s true feelings remain ultimately mysterious, whereas a kid can tell you how they feel. Humans’ knowledge of other species’ internal states mostly comes from external observation, often of captive animals, or animals’ use of our own language devices like speech, signs and symbols. Parrots can screech their desire for crackers. A gorilla used hand signs to express her desire to be tickled by Robin Williams. Yet, who knows what information humpback whales transmit in their songs and calls? (Only the aliens in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, to whom the whales apparently said “MacGuffin.”)

Researching companion animals requires scientists to describe the emotional states of animals, what appears to be enjoyment, sadness or disgust. However, the animals themselves don’t use those terms in their own minds. Much may be lost in translation when conduction pet food palatability trials and other tests. In human sensory analysis research, scientists rely on people using common terms to describe the taste, smell and other characteristics of the foods and drinks they test. Since Jane may call piquant that which Jack names peppery, researchers try to develop common sets of flavor definitions. Study participants can then describe flavors and smells using the same words. However, analyzing Rover’s impression of a new treat requires far more extreme translation than between any two human languages. People must infer pets’ internal states from the animals’ behaviors. Then people describe those assumed emotions using human means of expression and understanding. Consider the canine sense of smell and dogs' unpretentious manners. How could a dog ever express to a human the emotion felt upon sniffing another dog’s behind? Talk about culture shock. Our own anatomical aversions would make it difficult for us to appreciate, even if dogs spoke perfect English. Meanwhile our olfactory limitations would leave us as puzzled as a dog looking at a Rubik’s Cube.

Generating emotional terminology for dogs, cats and pet owners

To get at these hidden pet emotions, scientists sometimes use owners’ own observations of the animals. These citizen scientists can provide detailed observations at lower expense than maintaining a research kennel. However, each pet owner has their own emotional relationship with their pets. For pet owners’ notes to be valuable, they need a common descriptive language too.

A group of researchers, led by Kadri Koppel, Ph.D., associate professor at Kansas State University, conducted studies to look for those common terms for dog, cat and pet owner emotion. The scientists identified ranges of animal emotions and associated behaviors, as described by 24 pet owners (11 dog owners and 13 cat owners). Those same pet owners also noted their own emotions while interacting with their pets.

“I think this research is a start in understanding what language pet owners use when talking about their emotions related to their pets,” Koppel wrote in an email. “This could be used in marketing, of course, and communicating with the pet owners, and also apply this in product development - what is it that makes the pet owner and the pet happy, or helps avoid negative emotions? I think there is still a lot to study in this area.”

In the study, dog owners generated lists of 39 emotional terms for dogs, ranging from happy to anxious. Those same dog owners also described their own emotions, resulting in 33 term list. Cat owners created 53 terms for cats’ emotions, including calm, happy, angry and fearful, along with 60 terms for their own emotions. Pet owners mostly described both dogs and cats using the same primary emotions, such as excited, loved, scared or confused. However, pet owners infrequently mentioned some secondary emotions, including pride, cozy and embarrassed.

The lists of emotional terms often overlapped among pet owners and their animals. The researchers suggested two explanations for this. If emotional cognition in people and pets is the same, then the same situations may be eliciting the same responses. In other words, Pavlov and his dogs would both feel exited upon hearing the dinner bell for the same reasons. Along with that, the bond between pet and owner may reinforce that emotional reciprocity. On the other hand, if dog and cat emotional cognition can’t be equated to human mental processing, then many of the emotions observed in pets may be the projection of the owners. The tendency of pet owners to anthropomorphize animals as fur babies suggests that people with close bonds to their pets may misinterpret some pet emotions and behaviors as more human than they really are. People tend to think cats rub their cheeks against us when pleased to see us, but there may be other motivations behind that cat’s decisions to smear a person with her own scent.

To conduct their research, the scientists presented focus groups with open-ended questions about pets and emotions. The researchers intended to provoke thought in the pet owners and develop emotional terms relevant to the owners' own experiences, as opposed to providing a predetermined list of emotions to evaluate.

Koppel’s team concluded that their lists of emotional terms could inform pet food marketers in their appeals to consumers’ emotions, but their terminology would need further validation with larger, more diverse groups than those in their study published in the Journal of Sensory Studies.

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