Animals Experience Emotions, But Why Does that Matter?

By: Suzana Gartner & Hannah Cinel

            Many dog guardians would agree, myself included that our furry friends can feel emotions just like us. My dog’s excitement and joy when I return home from work each day is palpable. A recent study, as discussed in the New York Times, showed us that the sights and smells of familiar humans can actually activate a part of a dog’s brain called the caudate, which is associated with positive emotions.[1] These experiences of emotions are not limited to dogs, either: studies have shown that animals from rats to whales to elephants feel and exhibit emotions just as humans do. Rats are known to show empathy for their fellow species members, opting to save other rats instead of getting a treat for themselves in studies. Elephants, whales, and chimpanzees are all known to show grief-like behaviours in the wake of loss.[2] Bereaved mother monkeys who have lost a child turn to their communities for help, expanding their social network.[3] Who among us can say that we have not turned to a friend during a dark time in our lives?

Marc Bekoff, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, has worked extensively with animals and actively researches animal sentience. One of his most remarkable stories came from a trip to Kenya. In watching a group of wild elephants, he noticed that one of the elephants, Babyl, was crippled and could not travel as fast as the rest of the herd. From a pure survivalist perspective, one would think that the other elephants would leave her behind to fend for herself; but they waited for her. Bekoff’s guide confirmed that they had been doing this for years. The elephants were waiting for Babyl because they cared for her.[4] Another animal researcher, Carl Safina, tells of a story where an old and almost blind woman got lost and was found the next day surrounded by elephants who were guarding her.[5] They saw another creature in distress and chose to help. Not only do they have their own emotions, but they can also feel and respond to the pain of others. These types of stories can be challenging to confront, especially considering how animals like elephants are treated when in captivity, and the general lack of legal protection they are given. How can the fact that these beautiful creatures form loving friendships and bonds with humans and animals alike stand against the fact that many suffer abuse daily?[6]

Science now heavily agrees that animals do, in fact, experience emotions just like humans: there are over 2,500 studies confidently confirming this.[7] This ability to experience emotions in animals, or ‘animal sentience’, has long been discussed by philosophers and scientists alike, but has only recently begun to be recognized by political and legal authorities. In 2009, the European Union recognized animal sentience in its Treaty of Lisbon, and Cambridge University proclaimed animal sentence in 2012 with their Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness.[8] Some may say animal sentience is now virtually undeniable. The law, unfortunately, is many steps behind.

Currently, the laws which protect animals in Canada are slim: there are criminal laws that forbid “unnecessary pain, suffering or injury to an animal” and “causing… injury by willful neglect”.[9] This is a low bar of protection, and this is due in part to the fact that animals are treated as property by the law. They are seen as the same as a toaster or a lamp in somebody’s home. Some countries and states are starting to legally consider animals sentient, which can create a positive ripple effect on the rights of animals. Quebec recognized animal sentience in 2015, and this made it more difficult for their citizens to mistreat animals, thus offering them better protection.[10] New Zealand, in classifying animals as sentient, has banned cosmetic testing on animals.[11] While the USA does not currently legally recognize animal sentience, Alaska and Illinois now require judges to consider the best interests of the animal in deciding pet custody disputes.[12] This requirement at least acknowledges that an animal has physical and emotional needs beyond those of an inanimate object. It is clear that positive and exciting steps forward flow from the recognition of sentience and the treating of animals as more than property, but much of Canada and the USA are still unfortunately many steps behind.

Not recognizing animals as sentient can also have disastrous consequences. Punky, the cattle dog, suffered a tragic end at the hands of the law earlier this year. The four-year-old dog was put down as a result of being deemed ‘dangerous’ after a biting incident at a local dog park in 2017. For two years, Punky was separated from his guardian in legal limbo, while his guardian was fighting vehemently to save his life. The public rallied behind Punky as well, creating online petitions in an attempt to save him from being put down. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court of Canada denied leave to hear Punky’s case, and he was put down with no chance at redemption.[13] The recognition that Punky was sentient (more so than a piece of furniture, at least) may have helped his case. We may have been less quick to end Punky’s life if we had recognized his sentience and the fact that he felt emotions and had the capacity to make mistakes, as humans do. The love he gave to his family and the anxiety and sadness he must have felt in his final years are convincing to many that he is a sentient being, worthy of redemption, love, and protection.

[1] Gregory Berns, “Dogs Are People, Too”, New York Times (5 Oct 2013), online:

[2] Jessica Pierce, “Do Animals Experience Grief?”, The Conversation (24 Aug 2018), online:

[3] Jonathan Balcombe, “Yes, Animals Have Feelings”, LiveScience (11 Dec 2014), online:

[4] Marc Bekoff, “The Emotional Lives of Animals”, PBS Nature (31 Oct 2012),

[5] Simon Worrall, “Yes, Animals Think And Feel. Here’s How We Know.”, National Geographic (15 Jul 2015), online:

[6] Liv Baker, “Asian elephant rescue, rehabilitation and rewilding”, Animal Sentience 28(1) (20 Jan 2020), online:

[7] Emily Birch, “Crying elephants and giggling — animals have feelings, too”, The Conservation (10 Jan 2018), online:

[8] Suzanne Monyak, “When the Law Recognizes Animals as People”, The New Republic (2 Feb 2018), online:; European Union, Treaty of Lisbon Amending the Treaty on European Union and the Treaty Establishing the European Community, 13 December 2007, 2007/C 306/01, available at:

[9] Criminal Code, (RSC, 1985, c C-46), ss. 444-447.

[10] The Canadian Press, “Quebec defines animals as ‘sentient beings’ in new legislation”, CTV News (4 Dec 2015), online:

[11] Monyak, supra note 6.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Jason Proctor, “Dead dog walking: Can Punky ever be a ‘good canine citizen’ again?”, CBC News (13 Apr 2019), online: