By Kristel-Marie Ramnauth
This article was written by guest columnist Kristel-Marie Ramnath, who is an Associate Member of the Veterinary Association of Trinidad and Tobago and specialises in animal behaviour and pet psychology. She is the author of several articles on this subject and is often referred to as T&T’s Pet Whisperer.
Two months ago, I was on the radio defending the fact that dogs have emotions. Strange that in this day and age where animals have proven themselves above and beyond to be intelligent and sensitive, they are still looked upon by some as dumb. The debate regarding emotion in animals started as early as Aristotle (384—322 BC) and continues to this day with no scientific consensus. Scientists, philosophers, pet owners and those who interact with animals all voice their opinions on this matter but it remains a difficult question to answer because animals cannot tell us what they are feeling in words. It is apparent that society recognises that animals can suffer and feel pain, as demonstrated by the criminalisation of animal cruelty; but are animal expressions simply innate/hard-wired responses or do they represent animal emotion? Aristotle first postulated that there is a natural hierarchy of living beings; the different levels being determined by the abilities present in the beings due to their nature. While plants, animals, and human beings are all capable of taking in nutrition and growing, he said that only animals and human beings are capable of conscious experience. This meant that plants, being inferior to animals and human beings, have the function of serving the needs of animals and human beings.
Likewise, he said that human beings are superior to animals because human beings have the capacity for using reason to guide their conduct, while animals lack this ability and must instead rely on instinct. It followed therefore, that the function of animals was to serve the needs of human beings.
The Christian philosopher St Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) compounded this theory by arguing that animals cannot direct their own actions, therefore they are merely instruments and exist for the sake of the human beings who direct their actions. Other such theories include those expounded by Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) and Rene Descartes (1596-1650) who denied animal consciousness, claiming that all animal behaviour could be explained in purely mechanistic terms. The mechanistic explanation of behaviour did not apply to human beings, according to Descartes, for two reasons. First, human beings are capable of complex and novel behaviour. This behaviour is not the result of simple responses to stimuli, but is instead the result of our reasoning about the world as we perceive it. Second, human beings are capable of the kind of speech that is spontaneous and expresses thoughts. The advancement of technology and the evolution from animals being used purely for what they could provide for humans (food, draught animals, etc) to animals adapting roles as companions, therapy animals and service animals (which resulted in closer interactions with our animals), dawned a different way of looking at them, and the science of neuroethology was born. Neurobiology refers to the study of the nervous system; ethology refers to the study of behaviour in natural conditions; and jointly neuroethology is defined as the study of behaviour resulting from mechanistic control by the nervous system.
A noteworthy researcher in this field is Dr Jaak Panksepp, a neuroscientist who has proven that all animals and humans have the same core emotion systems in the brain. The main difference in our brains is that humans have a larger neocortex than animals, wherein language abilities are generated—hence the reason why humans can talk and animals cannot (or at least, cannot say words the way we can).
However, the core emotional systems for both animals and humans are genetically encoded into the subcortical neurocircuitry of the brain, below the neocortex. Dr Panksepp says, “It is noteworthy that no neurotransmitter or neuromodulator has been discovered in human beings which is qualitatively different from those found in other mammals. In fact, all mammals share remarkably similar anatomical distributions of most neurochemical systems within their brains.” Experiments using intracellular dyes or electrodes have shown that stimulating different subcortical areas in the brain produces emotional reactions in animals. Comparisons with the feelings humans verbally express through the stimulation of the corresponding areas in their brain indicates a link in the emotional systems excited. For example, if stimulating section A of the subcortical region of the human brain causes a human to feel happy; and section A of the subcortical region of the animal’s brain is stimulated, the response evoked by the animal seems to be one of pleasure or happiness. These core emotional systems are referred to as “blue-ribbon emotions” meaning that they “generate well-organised behaviour sequences that can be evoked by localised electrical stimulation of the brain.” This basically means that when you stimulate the brain systems for one of the core emotions, you always get the same behaviours from the animal.
Scientists have been able to elicit discrete responses from seven different emotional systems within the mammalian brain:
Seeking—the basic impulse to search, investigate, and make sense of the environment;
Rage—which can stem from frustration, body surface irritation, restraint, indignation;
Fear—pain, threat, foreboding (if survival is threatened);
Panic—separation distress, social loss, grief, loneliness;
Care—maternal nurturing and love;
Play—carefree play which produces joy.
Science has proven that animals feel all of the above emotions. As a pet owner, it is your duty to be cognisant of this fact to ensure that the environment you provide for your companion is one which stimulates those positive emotional systems while inhibiting the activation of those negative emotional systems.