Monday, March 29, 2010
By Julia Williams
I recently saw a TV commercial that featured a depressed man whose dog sat there looking very sad because his owner was not giving him any attention. An internet search revealed it was part of the “Depression Hurts” campaign for the anti-depressant Cymbalta. This ad asks, “Who does depression hurt? Everyone.” Apparently, this includes our pets. Delving further on Google, I found this interesting post on Twitter: “Is it just me, or does the Cymbalta commercial kind of guilt you into taking depression meds so your dog won't be sad for you anymore?”
This got me to thinking about human emotions, and pondering whether we, as pet owners, pass our moods and feelings on to our pets. Could a depressed owner create a depressed dog? Could the pet of a stressed out, anxious, angry, manic or overly fearful owner begin to feel the same way? In contrast, would the pet of a cheerful, optimistic, happy-go-lucky human be just like them?
I suppose one first has to ask, do pets have emotions? Some people, especially scientific types and those who are not “pet people,” say no. They believe emotions exist only in humans. However, most pet owners tend to disagree, because they see proof that animals have emotions every day. Responsible pet owners who spend quality time with their animal companions, can tell what kind of mood they are in by reading their body language and facial expressions. We know whether our pets are eager or fearful, happy or sad, mad or content. What are those then, if not emotions?
Every pet owner likely has no shortage of anecdotal evidence of their dog or cat picking up on their emotional state. We see firsthand just how sensitive animals are to our moods, and we see them react accordingly. When I am sad and crying, my cats all crowd around me. They head-butt my hands and face, try other things to get my attention, and stick to me like glue if I am in bed. It’s as if they are saying, “We know you are hurting, how can we make it better?”
I also know that when I am in high spirits, my cats seem happier too. Rocky will sometimes meet me at the door when I come home. After I pick him up, hug him exuberantly and tell him how glad I am to see him, he then prances around the kitchen like he’s king of the castle. Dogs are often more aggressive to people who fear them. Much like children will do when their parents fight, dogs and cats slink away to hide or sulk when their owners are arguing.
Nonetheless, it can be hard to convince science-minded individuals that animals have emotions, primarily because it's nearly impossible to measure feelings. While it may be crystal clear to a pet owner that their dog or cat has as a full spectrum of emotions, science can’t quantify them – yet. As such, it’s easy to discount the role that emotions play in pets.
From an evolutionary standpoint, it seems silly to believe that the ability to sense mood occurred for the first and only time in the human animal. Yet even if we believe that animals have emotions and can sense our moods, does that mean we automatically transfer our feelings to our pets? If a person is constantly agitated or angry, I am positive this would negatively affect their pet’s emotional state. But is the pet taking on those emotions, or are they merely reacting to them? What do you think?
Read more articles by Julia Williams