If you ask a pet owner if their dog, cat or even turtle loves them, they will almost assuredly say yes. People have strong bonds with their pets, and many feel that they are a four-legged family member. Warm fuzzy feelings aside, is there any science behind the idea that animals have warm fuzzy feelings too? The answer appears to be yes.
According to Dr. Sam Gosling, a leader in the field of animal personality, animals’ ability to feel regret and other emotions depends on the cognitive capacity of the animal in question. He went on to state that he believes there may be a psychological mechanism that makes animals, especially social ones, alter their behaviors. What this means is that if animals have the mental ability to feel emotions, it is likely that they do.
To further study this issue, researchers at Emory University have begun doing MRIs on dogs. An MRI brain scan will generate a picture of the brain which will enable doctors and researchers to get an idea of what is going on in someone’s head, quite literally. With this in mind, Greg Berns, a professor of neuroeconomics at Emory University, trained a two-year-old dog named Callie to sit still for 10 minutes so they could do an MRI of her brain.
The Emory research team started by using hand signals to test different areas of Callie’s brain. The first test involved giving her two hand signals: one meant that she would get a treat and the other meant she would not. Results showed that there was a change in the area of the brain that processes feelings of reward when she was shown the treat hand signal.
Another interesting finding is that dogs have dopamine receptors, just like people do. Dopamine is considered a “feel-good” chemical, and Dr. Johannes Odendaal, a professor at the Pretoria Technikon University in South Africa, found that after dogs and their owners spent time together, both had dopamine and other chemicals related to happiness in their bloodstream. In other words, dogs appear to experience happiness through the same chemicals that people do.
Additionally, Dr. Odendaal found that blood pressure dropped in both the dogs and their owners, meaning that both felt more relaxed after spending time together. It has been long observed that people can benefit medically from having pets, but it appears that the pet seems to benefit as well.
What these studies tell us is that even though your dog, cat or turtle can’t use human language to tell you they love you, it is very likely that they do.