Can our pets love us, care for us and grieve for us? Pete the Vet on Newstalk’s Pat Kenny Show

Are pets capable of loving us, caring for us, and grieving for us?

The bond between humans and animals can be astonishingly strong, defying our rational expectations. Two stories were in the news this week, highlighting this.

When a man in Michigan was badly injured after slipping on ice, for nineteen hours his dog huddled up to him to keep him warm and barked until help arrived. He would certainly have died without his dog’s help.

Then in the UK, Rufus, a Labrador cross, noticed that a 21 month old toddler was choking on her own vomit in her bed, and he began barking and tugging on the arm of Ms Gunnion, who was sleeping in another room.

These stories do not surprise me: in my lifetime, it has become clearer that many animals share many emotional and behavioural characteristics with humans. It used to be believed that animals were basically “a bunch of autonomous reflexes”, and any suggestion to the contrary was treated as beings sentimental tosh: anthropomorphism is the term that was used to describe this.

These days, while it is still easy and tempting to over-endow animals with human characteristics (they do NOT understand every word we say), it is now seen as scientific truth that they are far more like us than we used to think, and it is generally seen as appropriate to assume that if they behave like us in certain situations (such as rescuing someone), then they are almost certainly having the same conscious feelings and emotions that we would have in that situation.

Dynamic MRI imaging studies of animals show that the same regions of the brain are activated during many daily activities, including interactions with others. Animals do not have the same large forebrain as humans, so they are not as good as us at thinking. They don’t plan for the future nor reflect on the past like us, and they can’t use their imagination or creative skills to work out how to use tools, or how to solve tricky situations. But they can – and do – react in similar ways at a basic, emotional level.

So when a person that they are attached to in trouble, they will react just as we do.

The new BBC documentary series, Spy in the Wild, has been showing real life demonstrations of the emotional depth of animals. The series, which goes out on Thursday evenings, uses lifelike animatronic spy creatures to infiltrate the animal world to explore their complex emotions.
The first episode, themed around the subject of love, includes one example filming a troop of langurs living on a temple complex in Rajasthan. A robotic camera, modelled to resemble a young monkey, is knocked over by the troop, and they then believe it to be a baby that has died. The langurs are seen gathering around the motionless “baby”, hushing their chatter and hugging each other as if collectively grieving.

I’ve written articles elsewhere discussing the topic of pets grieving. This is a clear area where animals have the potential to reveal their true emotional selves to us. The interesting thing is that they do not always grieve, although I would suggest that perhaps humans do not always feel grief as intensely as we may think: unlike animals, our forebrains make us think about the social need to be seen to be grieving, even if we may not actually be all that upset!

To hear the radio discussion on this topic between Pete and Pat, listen to the podcast below.

Pet queries from listeners

  • I have now 14 month old female tortoiseshell rescued when she was less than 6 weeks old and wasn’t weaned. Now Neutered. Very social and glued to me who found her. She licks us humans incessantly when she’s sitting calmly on our lap for example. Suddenly it will be like you hit her murder switch and she can go from calm to mental in seconds with no apparent trigger. She can be hissing, biting and growling. What’s going on?
  • We found a stray cat about 6 weeks old, he was weak and eyes infected. Now he is 7 months but he has cat flu!  he is ok but get’s bouts of hair ball type fits but gets sick. What do you think is causing this?
  • We have an almost 4 year old collie/German Shepherd cross, great dog..loves exercise especially fetching ball, noticed for a while now that after about 10 mins of fast exercise fetching ball, when she stops she will be very wobbly, very weak on her legs and have to sit down, always give her water straight away…otherwise healthy and no problem with just normal walks, is it a concern or just too much for her? Thanks, Helen
  • Our dog 7 years old, has nightmares. She wakes during the night screaming. She will quieten down when I pet her and goes back to sleep
  • Why does my cat go a bit mad after he does his business in his litter tray? He runs around, jumps up walls etc for a few mins after a poo – why is this?
  • We have two Yorkies, a male and a female. We rescued the male 3 months ago and is generally a happy and affectionate dog. However, at night time he hides away on his own and if we try to move him to get into him into his bed he becomes aggressive and snaps. He is also aggressive in the car or when trying to bathe him. Is there anything we can do to make his day time personality be his only? On top of this our female yorkie has become louder, she was always a barker but now goes crazy whenever someone leaves the room. She barks and bites any object in front of her, shaking it until the person comes back in. What can we do?! Both are neutered
  • A cat started coming to our house every morning and evening, she screeched for food until she gets it. I’m NOT a cat person but bought food to feed her and now can’t get rid of her… She’s here now 24/7! Will this continue now as a habit has formed?
  • Our 12 year old cat is soiling the decking inside on our tile floor, we have a litter tray in she’d but yet she won’t use it most of the time. How can we train it?
  • We’ve just adopted an older dog and are hoping she’ll be a companion to our other dog. She gets very snappy if we pet our other dog and has snapped at me twice. Our older dog seems quite stressed and that’s the opposite effect we wanted. Can you help? Paula
  • I have a 5 month old female Maltese puppy. She is absolutely terrified of everything outside of the house, although, any sudden increase in noise inside the house also scares her. Should I just keep exposing her to the things she’s afraid of (walks, the car, the world!!) or should I be doing something different? She seems to have high levels of anxiety already.
  • I have an Irish Terrier who loves big long walks with me on a bike but no matter what receptacle I bring for water she won’t drink. How far/long is it safe to travel. I don’t ride fast.
  • I have a one yr old Shih Tzu who is a fussy eater. I put her food in her bowl but instead of eating it she barks for me to pick it up and hand it to her?

To find out my answers to these queries, listen to the podcast below.


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