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Animals live healthier lives when their emotions are acknowledged

Researchers have discovered a significant correlation between the health and welfare of working animals and the beliefs owners hold about their emotional capacity. The experts found that animals whose owners acknowledge their emotions are significantly healthier than those whose owners do not believe that animals feel emotions. 

The study was a collaboration between the University of Portsmouth and The Donkey Sanctuary – an animal welfare charity focused on working equids such as donkeys, horses, and mules.

The scientific community has long recognized that animals, including equids, have emotional lives. This research is the first to explore the implications of these emotions on the welfare of working animals in various countries and contexts globally. The investigation spanned six countries – Egypt, Mexico, Pakistan, Senegal, Spain, and Portugal – involving communities where equids are a central part of people’s livelihoods.

How the research was conducted 

The study involved visits to these communities, where researchers administered questionnaires to the equid owners, probing into their beliefs, values, and attitudes towards their animals. 

Furthermore, a detailed welfare assessment of the animals was carried out, providing empirical data on the health and condition of these working equids.

Remarkable results 

The results of the study, published in the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, reveal a remarkable trend. Equids whose owners believed in their capacity to feel emotions or had an emotional bond with them, demonstrated significantly better health conditions. They had higher body condition scores compared to equids whose owners did not hold such beliefs or viewed the animals primarily through the lens of their utility or profitability.

The research also revealed that equids were much less likely to be lame if their owners believed in their capacity to feel pain. These patterns held across the diverse cultural and economic contexts of the six countries involved in the study.

Study lead author Dr. Emily Haddy is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Portsmouth’s Centre for Comparative and Evolutionary Psychology

“We know people’s feelings toward their animals can impact their welfare, but we wanted to know if this differs across cultures,” said Dr. Haddy.

She noted that this was the first study of its kind to make these connections across multiple countries and contexts, emphasizing the substantial influence of the relationship between owners and their animals on animal health and welfare.

Compassion and animal welfare

Study co-author Dr. Faith Burden is the executive director of Equine Operations at The Donkey Sanctuary.

“We have long understood that donkeys and mules are sensitive and sentient beings, who fare best when they are treated as individuals and with the kindness and respect they deserve,” said Dr. Burden. 

She pointed out that these findings could revolutionize future welfare initiatives by promoting emotional connection and awareness of animal sentience among owners of working equids globally.

On the other hand, study co-author Dr. Leanne Proops warned against making hasty assumptions about owners whose animals had poorer health and welfare indicators. “It’s possible these owners simply don’t have the resources to look after their animals as well, and because they don’t like to think of them suffering, they adjust their beliefs to think that their animals don’t feel pain.” 

Dr. Proops suggested this could be a psychological technique to minimize distress when behavior and beliefs do not align.

According to the study authors, their findings are a crucial stepping stone towards establishing causality and fostering a more profound understanding of compassion and animal welfare. With further research, this discovery could drive significant advancements in improving the welfare of working animals worldwide.

More about animal emotions

The study of animal emotions, often referred to as “affective neuroscience,” has advanced significantly in the past few decades. While it’s impossible to know exactly what an animal is feeling because we can’t ask them directly, research suggests that many animals experience a range of emotions similar to those felt by humans.

Animals show behavioral, physiological, and neurobiological markers that are akin to human emotions. For example:

Fear and anxiety

This is perhaps the most extensively studied emotion in animals due to its survival implications. Animals display clear signs of fear when threatened, such as increased heart rate, specific vocalizations, and avoidance behaviors.

Joy and pleasure

Animals have been observed to exhibit behavior suggesting joy and pleasure. Play behavior in many animals, for instance, seems to be conducted for the sheer pleasure of it. Rats have been found to emit ultrasonic vocalizations, often described as “laughter,” when tickled. Dogs also show behaviors such as wagging tails, jumping, and barking, which are usually interpreted as signs of joy.

Sadness and grief

Observations suggest that some animals may grieve the loss of companions. Elephants and primates, for example, have been seen to show behaviors indicative of mourning, such as lingering around the body of a deceased group member, displaying signs of stress or depression, and decreased appetite.

Empathy and compassion

Some animals also appear to show empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Rats will work to free other rats from cages, showing distress when their peers are distressed. Primates also demonstrate behaviors that suggest empathy, such as comforting peers who are upset.

Love and affection

Animals such as dogs, elephants, and primates exhibit behaviors that suggest strong emotional bonds with others, akin to love and affection. They groom each other, stay close to each other, and show signs of distress when separated.

Neurobiological research supports these observations, as areas in the brain associated with emotions in humans are also found in many other animals. This includes the amygdala, which is involved in processing emotions, and the release of hormones such as oxytocin and cortisol, associated with social bonding and stress, respectively.

However, it’s important to note that the interpretation of animal behavior as indicative of specific emotions can be subjective, and more research is needed to fully understand the complexity and depth of animal emotions. 

Furthermore, while many animals seem to experience basic emotions, the experience of more complex emotions such as guilt, shame, or pride is still a topic of debate among scientists.


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