Do Cats and Dogs Have Emotions? Anthropomorphization and Its Meaning.

Knoji reviews products and up-and-coming brands we think you'll love. In certain cases, we may receive a commission from brands mentioned in our guides. Learn more.
Do your Dogs and Cats have emotions? This article explores why it is difficult to characterize emotion from a scientific standpoint.

Anthropomorphization is defined as the attribution of human characteristics to nonhuman objects and animals. For example, Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny are a mouse and rabbit respectively but they walk and talk like humans. Also the pet rock is simply a rock that we glue google eyes to and give names. Do you believe that your dog or cat has moods, that they are angry or happy or sad? To label your pets with human emotions is anthropomorphization. This is not a problem as anyone who has ever spent time with an animal knows that they most certainly do have emotional states that they can quite effectively convey. The problem begins to develop when field scientist begin ascribing these emotions to their subjects as emotional states are unquantifiable by the scientific method. More on this later, let’s take a look at anthropomorphization in history.

The idea of anthropomorphization dates back to the earliest of cultural artifacts that we consider the movement from necessity to art about 35,000 years ago. That is, objects made for their own sake as opposed to objects made for subsistence purposes. The oldest of these artifacts is the Hohlstien-Stadel Lionman statue from what is now called Germany (see fig #1).

Fig #1. A mammoth-ivory statuette representing a half-lion, half-man figure (Hohlstein-Stadel, Germany, Aurigcacian 40,000-28,000 years ago)

Anthropomorphization is a cross cultural phenomenon that knows no geographic or anachronistic bounds. Cultures all over the world throughout time have incorporated anthropomorphized figures and tied them to religion. The Egyptians and Native Americans are both very good example of this as all of their deities were variations of human animal hybrids (see fig #2). The Greeks had centaurs and pans in their mythology, even Christianity has this imagery, and Satan himself is often depicted with horns, a tail and cloven hooves. As a primatologist, my favorite of these in the Hindu God Hanuman, the naughty monkey god (see fig #3).

Fig #2. The Egyptian pantheon

Fig #3. Hanuman, The naughty monkey god of the Hindu’s

As I mentioned earlier, anyone who has spent time around animals knows that they have emotions, the problem come when a researcher tries to use interpret emotional states in a scientific context. For example: Jane Goodall writes about an incident in her widely acclaimed book “In the Shadow of Man”. An adult female chimpanzee dropped her newborn from the tree tops and it fell to its death on the forest floor. The Female chimp wailed and cried as she scooped up the body and carried it around for two weeks. She stopped eating and eventually died of starvation. Anyone with any sense knows, and Jane Goodall reported as much, that the mother of the infant died of a broken heart and remorse. In my own field studies of chimpanzees I have observed many emotional states brought on by closeness of family, the simple joy of play among the young and even shame when one fell out of a tree and was laughed at by the others.

The problem comes when, as scientists, we try to convey these observed emotional states in a paper. If during the peer review process a peer believes you are anthopomorhizing it could discredit your entire hypothesis. There is no means currently of accurately gauging or measuring the emotional state of an animal. Frans De Waal is a primatologist who is working with Bonobos to rectify this scientific short coming. No one denies that Bonobos have emotions, the problem becomes; are they the same emotions that we are feeling?  Our own emotions are currently our only basis for comparison and the scientific method is based on observable repeatability and there is no repeatability when it comes to emotional states in other animals.

It all boils down to a simple question. Does your dog love you, does it miss you when you are gone, is it happy when you return? The obvious answer is yes, we can see it in their behavior, but can these states be qualified in a scientific framework and proven? The answer, sadly, is no.

Check out my Travel Blog "On The Move" at:


Posted on Dec 24, 2011
Posted on Oct 6, 2010
Posted on Oct 6, 2010
Lorena Williams
Posted on Sep 6, 2010