Can we talk about animal emotions now? (part 2)

In her second blog about animal emotions, Georgina Allen discusses how understanding animal emotions can be used in our daily care of them.

Lately, more and more discussions have been had around animals having complex, intelligent emotions and the implications of this. What then does this really mean for the animals we care for, and can we use it in our day-to-day management of them?

Objectively we know everyone around us has emotions, but to the self they are very subjective and in some cases feel relentless! While they are designed to ensure our survival, how they feel to the individual is very personal. We may have similar reactions to certain situations as a result of our basic emotions. However, as individuals, how we feel on a day-to-day basis will differ from person to person depending on other experiences, both past and present.

It can help us relate more easily to animals

Understanding that "one size doesn't fit all' when it comes to experiencing both positive and negative emotions, can also help us understand and empathize with other non-human animal emotions and feelings. Empathy breeds compassion. To paraphrase, their lives matter to them as much as ours do to us. Appreciating that individual animals have preferences and complex emotional reactions can help us provide the most appropriate care that meets these animal's individual needs.

We can identify better welfare measurements

Many animal welfare assessments are based on identifying negative welfare responses, such as elevated cortisol levels, aversion activities or abnormal behaviours. However, through this approach we could be missing critical welfare indicators as well as potentially compromising an animal's welfare. While animal inspections or measures remain focused on the objective and physical parameters, the positive and rewarding behaviours that an animal may seek could get missed. Similar to humans, emotions in animals are used as motivators to seek out positive experiences. They are self-perpetuating and go hand in hand with behavioural needs that have evolved. Knowing this, if we have a comprehensive understanding of a species needs, we should be able to take more measures from positive, emotionally driven welfare indicators. While a captive animal may be provided with more than enough food so it is nutritionally sated, if you consequently remove the need to express the natural foraging or hunting behaviours that have evolved, you may compromise the animal's psychological well-being. From an evolutionary perspective these behaviours may be as complex, stimulating and possibly as rewarding as the food itself. In that case, measures and management of animal welfare should include the ability to mimic those rewarding behaviours and stimulate positive emotions.

We can start challenging current practices and legislation 

In 2012 a group of scientists offered up what is called The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness, concluding "...evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness". Last year New Zealand formally recognized animals as sentient in its Animal Welfare Amendment Bill. However, despite these advances, when it comes to animal welfare legislation globally, good protection standards have a long way to go. If standards exist they are often based on simple or unquantifiable measures, leading to uncertain interpretations and non-compliance. Perceptions of animal welfare are globally variable and culturally sensitive. Nonetheless in spite of these perceptual variations, an animal's welfare experience is highly individual and independent of these perceptions. Therefore, clarity on what animal welfare actually means to the animal and comprising both positive physical and psychological requirements into definitions and consequent measures are essential to bypass vague and ambiguous guidelines.


* This is a personal blog. Any views or opinions represented in this blog belong solely to the blog owner and do not necessarily represent the views or policies of World Animal Protection.