Pet owners have long believed their companions love them back. Scientists once scoffed, but now they’re coming around.
August 18, 2003

Pet owners have long believed their companions love them back. Scientists once scoffed, but now they’re coming around.

Everyone who’s ever owned a pet has at least one story (usually many, actually) of an animal that seems just as emotional as any human. Take Ruth Osment, who says her two cats, Penny and Jo, feel sorry for her when she cries‑running to her and drying her tears with their fur. Or Donna Westlund, whose roommate's parrot Koko shows all the classic signs of a teenage crush, calling out "Hey, come here," whenever she tries to leave the room. Then there's John Van Zante. Recently, he watched Max, a Labrador retriever mix, sit lovingly by a woman in a wheelchair in a convalescent home while she patted his head for several minutes. It wasn't until the elderly woman wheeled off down the hall that Van Zante realized she had been parked on Max's tail the entire time. Max hadn't complained at all. "He was in pain, clearly, but he seemed to know that she had special needs, so he just sat through it," says Van Zante, communications director for the Helen Woodward Animal Center in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif.

Van Zante doesn't understand why some scientists argue that animals have no emotions, that they merely respond to incentives like so many automatons. "If we were purely a source for food, I'm certain that Max's reaction would have been different," he says. "Haven't these scientists noticed that their cats can't wait to rub up against their legs and reclaim ownership of their people after a day at work? Don't they take the time to greet their tail‑wagging dogs when they get home?"

Well, yes. But they're not as starry-eyed about what they see. For decades, psychologists have discounted the idea that pets can love their humans back. They have argued that animals that appear to express emotions are merely reacting to hormonal rushes triggered‑in cold, but typical, technical language‑by "outside stimuli.” But that view is changing, thanks to a loosely knit band of researchers working in fields as far‑flung as neurobiology and behavioral observation. With new evidence gleaned from studies of dogs, chimps and sundry other creatures, science is starting to catch up to what pet owners have always suspected: animals experience surges of deep‑seated fear, jealousy and grief‑and, most important, love. Unlike the few researchers who came before them, the scientists leading the new movement actually have solid evidence. "Five years ago my colleagues would have thought I was off my rocker," says biologist Marc Bekoff. "But now scientists are finally starting to talk about animal emotions in public. It's like they're coming out of the closet.”

And at an apt time, too ‑more and more pet owners now depend on their furry and feathered friends for emotional support. "People are delaying having children, but they still need that connection, that love," says Tamar Geller, owner of The Loved Dog Co. in Los Angeles. For many in that crowd, she says, pets are serving as surrogate kids. That may explain the sudden surge in interest; the push to find out what pets and other animals are thinking is being driven largely by those who love them. After all, if you're going to devote years of affection to an animal, isn't it nice to think it's not unrequited?

Aside from Charles Darwin, most students of animal behavior in the past believed that animals didn't have emotions‑or that if they did, we'd never know. Over the years, the belief hardened into dogma. Then, in the mid'60s, came Jane Goodall. Since she had little scientific training, she had never been indoctrinated with behaviorist theory. «But I'd had this amazing teacher my whole life," she says. That would be Rusty, a little black mongrel who lived at a hotel in her childhood neighborhood. "He went everywhere with me, and he didn't even belong to me," she says. "At the hotel he was disobedient, but he was beautifully behaved and sensitive with me. Of course, I thought animals had emotions, personalities, minds. How could I not?" Goodall un­knowingly rebelled against standard scientific practices in the wilds of Africa, giving her chimps names instead of impersonal numbers and describing their behavior with words like "joy," "depression" and "grief". The dons at Cambridge University rolled their eyes, but her studies were ultimately irrefutable. They might never have happened, Goodall notes, if she hadn't preferred Rusty to "the scientific treadmill.”

Today, thanks to those studies, the treadmill is a rather different exercise. Researchers carrying on Goodall's legacy are finding that it extends far beyond chimps, to dogs, cats, birds, rats and even animals as "simple" as the lowly octopus. All of them experience fear‑the most ancient of the emotions, mediated by the amygdala, an almond‑shaped organ in the brain. Many animals may feel something akin to love as well. Chimpanzees sometimes adopt baby chimps unrelated to them; horses have been known to form bonds so intense they refuse to spend the night in different stalls; whales have been spotted (albeit rarely) performing a peculiar dance that may be the equivalent of a human's postcoital cuddling.

Not surprisingly, the animal that has shown researchers the most emotional complexity thus far is the dog. Bred as human companions for thousands of years, dogs have evolved into master communicators. Recent studies show they are even better than chimpanzees at reading human emotional cues, a trait that undoubtedly helped them in the quest for food and shelter in the caves of early man. They may be equally adept at expressing their own feelings and personalities. Samuel Gosling, a biologist at the University of Texas at Austin, says people can reliably "type" four dimensions of canine personality: sociability, affection, emotional stability and "competence," which combines obedience and intelligence. They're remarkably similar to the four basic categories of human personality found in standard psychological tests.

The increased use of psychoactive pet drugs like Prozac (sold in its dog form as Clomicalm) is another piece of evidence. If animals didn't have moods mediated by the same neurotransmitters as humans, why would they react to our mood lifters? The trend toward pet psychiatry even extends to seemingly effective alternative treatments like hydrotherapy and acupuncture.

Pet owners need little convincing. Parisian Madeleine Niss says she treats her three cats, Harry, Spooky or Nikita, to gourmet meals at cafes and restaurants all over the city: “I’ll order a cheese plate or a ham plate for my cat so he can eat, too.” In January, the Hotel Crillon became Paris’s first luxury hotel to offer its pampering to pets. Travelers can treat their jet-lagged canines to a range of personalized services, including specially designed room-service menus (minced meat on rice? Or thinly sliced breast of poultry with veggies?) and mineral water. In San Juan, Puerto Rico, David Kurland and his 224-pound English mastiff, Buddy Love, run the Water Club. Incoming dogs fill out their own guest-registration cards, dipping their paws in a powdered chocolate-sugar mix to make the imprint. For dinner, they are offered a special menu that include foie gras and Nathan’s New York hot dogs. Each dog is presented with its own ceramic dog bowl and a Frisbee, and dog masseuses are on call.

Here's where the one real problem with the research pops up: enthusiasts, particularly laypeople, tend to go overboard. "There's still a lot of fluff out there, especially in terms of dog and cat behavior," says Harvard biologist Marc Hauser. Comparing human emotions to animals' may be like comparing color vision to black‑and‑white‑ they're the same concept, but the former is immensely more complex. Even Bekoff, who lays out the case for emotion in his recent "Minding Animals," isn't "claiming that dog joy and human joy are the same thing.” And as for love, pets adore their owners, to be sure -but not in the way that we love our own families. "They are scholars of the people they live with," says Jon Katz, author of the just‑released "The New Work of Dogs.” "What drives them to be affectionate is pretty primitive: food, shelter, attachment They're not thinking, 'This guy's an interesting fellow, I'm going to be his friend.”

Cats can be moody, sometimes even jealous.

When pet lovers like Karla Swatek joke that animals are "far more human than some humans I know," Katz starts to get worried. As for the millions of people who are convinced that their pets are psychic -like Lisa Burgess of Escondido, Calif., who swears her Chihuahua, Diego, persuaded her to postpone a trip that would have coincided with her mother's otherwise unforeseen emergency bladder surgery- well, you can guess what Katz thinks of them. "Why do we have to make our animals into mystics?" he says. "Why can't they just be great animals?"

Animal psychology is still an emerging field, a home for zany ideas that will be whittled down later into more realistic theories. Neurobiology in particular needs more fine‑tuning. Animals may have many of the same brain structures as humans, but in several cases, when animal behavior mimics that of humans, the underlying neural processes differ. Scientists might be able to distinguish between the two with active brain scans, but current neurobiological research on animals involves "mucking around in their brains,” says Bekoff, in which case you're "not dealing with a normal animal.” The noninvasive brain‑scanning techniques that revolutionized the study of human behavior in the '90s haven't helped, either‑despite their name, PET scans aren't appropriate for conscious animals that would panic if put into a claustrophobia‑inducing chamber. Behavioral studies, too, are still limited, if only by time and money. And, of course, there are still scientists who refuse to accept the idea of any animal emotion at all, save fear.

But the rise of animal‑emotion studies may proceed faster than the "curmudgeons" think. Technology will play a role –brain-scanning helmets that strap on to animals' heads may be available in just a few years. And, of course, unlike human subjects, animals can be cloned. "We can bring them up in different environments,” says Gosling, rhapsodizing about future projects modeled on human identical‑twin studies. Soon, he says, we'll have answers to questions that animal lovers have been asking for years. And we'll have some newer questions, too: is it fair to keep emotional beings cooped up in kennels, cages and small backyards? If rats and rabbits feel, how can we justify experimenting on them? Research on farm animals is just starting -what will it mean for our eating habits? And can our pets really love us back? The last of those, at least, is already solved. The answer, no matter whom you ask, is yes.


No matter how urbanized people's lives become, we still want to live in the company of animals. Numbers help tell the story of how humans indulge our pet‑o‑philia‑and suggest why we do it.

Europe's pet‑food business:

Number of companies 450
Volume of sales (2001)     5 million tonnes
Value of sales (2001)      $9.6 billion
Three‑year growth rate     3%
Pet owners who serve prepared 90%
pet food at least once a week

Number of European households with the following pets:

Cats 47 million
Dogs 41 million
Birds      35 million
Fish 9 million
Others     36 million

Do they really love us?


Worried about leaving your pets on their own during the day? AlphaOmega Soft Co., in Tokyo, has a solution. Its iSeePet software not only lets you watch your pets via PC or cell phone, it can also feed them. AlphaOmega has sold more than 500 units since last November at $1,000 apiece.


• CHINA: There has been a 60% increase in cat‑litter sales during the past five years.

• AUSTRALIA: 64% own pets, the highest figure in the world. Of those without pets, 53% wish they had one.

• BRAZIL: Dogs outnumber cats more than two to one.

• UNITED KINGDOM: 75% of all pet owners have suffered a pet bereavement. Of those, 1.5 million owners found it difficult to talk to friends and family about their loss. 37% of those who have lost a pet said they have never really gotten over their loss, and 77% said that it was like losing their best friend.

• JAPAN: The average cost of a new dog is $1,037, while the average cat goes for $602. Average cost of sterilization in Japan: female dog, $201; male dog, $128.

• WORLDWIDE: 31% of people list “love" as their reason for keeping cats as pets. "Companionship" (27%) was the second most common.


Most popular breeds and numbers registered:

Labrador retriever   154,616
Golden retriever     56,124
German shepherd      46,963

Dachshund 150,742
Chihuahua 52,834
Welsh corgi 30,940

Labrador retriever   33,668
German shepherd      14,270
Cocker spaniel 12,680


Pet‑ownership rates in France, ranked by owner's occupation:

Farmers              82%
Shopkeepers and artisans   64
Manual workers       57
Senior executives and professionals 36
Retired and unemployed     35