Do Pets Feel Gratitude?
Gratitude, it is said, is "the healthiest of all human emotions". But is it an emotion shared only by humans, or do animals feel it as well?
Some argue that animals don't feel emotions at all, not in the sense that people do. But that's a hard argument to win when faced with the whole body wag of a dog greeting his owner after a long (or not so long) absence, or a cat rounding a corner after hearing the distinct sound of a can of tuna popping open.
Opposite happiness, there have been reports of pets appearing to express sadness over owners or fellow pets who have passed away, and scientific research studies have been conducted regarding elephants and other large mammals expressing grief and even experiencing periods of mourning after the death of another in their group.
But gratitude is an entirely different emotion. It isn't an involuntary feeling that might rush over you like when watching a sappy Hallmark Christmas movie, but instead it requires intent and reflection.
It's an emotion that has received a lot of media attention over the last decade or so. Therapists, counselors, motivational speakers like Zig Ziglar, who is attributed to the quote above, and even Oprah Winfrey herself have stressed the importance of acknowledging and expressing gratitude, verbally or in writing, such as keeping a gratitude journal.
So, back to animals. They can't keep a journal of course, and they may not be able to say "thank you" out loud, but do they feel gratitude? And do they express it? I have to say that they do. Though my own research is not documented, it has been extensively observed for many years, in my own pets as well as in shelter pets.
I'll use our most recently adopted cat, Grady, as an example. A neighbor rescued him last winter from a truck stop, where he was surviving on scraps of food and dodging very large tires. He escaped the neighbor's care and made his way to our house, where he was of course provided with a warm bed, good food and clean water.
We didn't plan to keep him (famous last words) since we had two cats already, so I brought him to the SPCA Albrecht Center to get checked out, neutered, and placed for adoption. Being the soft-hearted sucker I am though, I felt an obligation to him, and checked on him every day throughout his stay. Each time I did, he jumped up excitedly, purred loudly and exhibited the sweetest affection with head bunts, rubbing on my face and falling over into my arms.
It would be easy to identify that behavior as simple feline affection, but gratitude? I think so. Wouldn't you be grateful to be rescued from life at a cold, loud, dangerous truck stop into a warm, safe shelter with plenty of food and water?
We've heard from many adopters who tell us how "grateful" their rescued pet is to be adopted. How they show them their appreciation with tail wags, face licks, purrs and snuggles.
Test the theory yourself. Toss your dog a treat, or offer your cat a bite of ham. What do they do next? Besides asking for more of course, is there an expression of gratitude?
Whether you believe that pets feel gratitude or not, we know for sure that people do, and speaking on behalf of the people working at the SPCA Albrecht Center, and for the pets in our care, we would like to express our gratitude to our many supporters in the form of volunteers, board members, adopters, donors, sponsors, clients and friends. The amazing things we are able to accomplish would never be possible without your help.
From our very grateful, furry family to yours - Happy Thanksgiving!
Sarah Neikam is the Marketing Director for the SPCA Albrecht Center for Animal Welfare. She is an Aiken native and has been with the SPCA since 2012. Sarah's family includes three adopted cats: Bastian, Luna and Grady, who are all living happy, loved lives thanks to the efforts of the SPCA.