"I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought, and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder." - Gilbert K. Chesterton
Happiness, doubled by wonder. Sounds about right, doesn't it? Considering gratitude as the product of those two emotions, and having witnessed pure happiness on the face of a playful pup, as well as sheer wonder in the eyes of a cat in his new home, it seems only logical that pets experience thankfulness.
Some people argue though that animals don't feel emotions at all, at least not in the sense that humans do. But that's a hard argument to win when faced with the whole body wag of a dog greeting his person after an absence, or a cat lovingly gazing upon her human companion and sharing a head press while purring contently.
Opposite happiness, there have been reports of pets appearing to express sadness and grief over owners or fellow pets who have passed away, and 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 the predictable ending of a Hallmark 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, 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? I believe they do. Though not scientifically documented, my own research 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 in the middle of winter from a truck stop, where he was surviving on scraps of food and dodging very large tires. He managed to escape the neighbor's care and made his way to our house, walking right in the back door actually. Our cats surprisingly tolerated him, so we set him up in the bathroom with a warm bed and food for the night.
The next morning, I took him to work with me at the SPCA Albrecht Center to get microchip scanned (he had none) examined, neutered, and placed on a stray hold. Feeling an obligation as his rescuer, I checked on him every day throughout his stay. Each time I did, he greeted me excitedly, purred loudly and exhibited the sweetest affection by rubbing my face with his head and falling over into my arms.
It would be easy to identify that behavior as simple feline affection, but gratitude? I think so. I could all but hear him say "Thank you" when he looked at me. 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.
Right now, our shelter is full of homeless cats and dogs who, though thankful to have a warm place to sleep and food in their bellies, are waiting, day after day, to feel the happiness and wonder that comes with being adopted into a loving, forever home of their own.
Please consider showing your gratitude for the joy pets bring to our lives by adopting one today or contributing to their care with a donation at LetLoveLive.org.
From our very grateful, furry family to yours - Happy Thanksgiving!
Sarah Neikam is the Operations Manager for the SPCA Albrecht Center for Animal Welfare. She is an Aiken native and has been with the Albrecht Center 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 Albrecht Center.