Ways That Animals Express Joy or Happiness

Ludwig Huber, a researcher at the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna’s Messerli Research Institute, conducted a study in 2015 which conclusively found that dogs can interpret emotion through human facial expression. Throughout the study, Huber and his team realized that man’s best friend had the ability to differentiate images of happy human faces from images of non-happy human faces. Likewise, we can also decipher an animal’s expression of emotion through facial expressions, tail wagging, or other forms of body language, and there are many other ways in which animals express their joy.

To understand an animal’s expression of emotion we first must accept that animals in fact are emotional creatures. Animal researchers like Charles Darwin have documented the emotional reactions of animals since the late 1800s. Darwin’s work highlighted the array of emotions that animals choose to display. He mostly focused on the body language of the animals in certain situations but Darwin’s research is supported by the idea that animals are sentient beings, meaning they feel and react to those feelings. Scientists have analyzed goats to measure their emotional response to various situations. It was noted that when the goats had a negative experience, like feeling lonely or not getting food when they expected it, they presented body language that expressed their discontent. Darwin’s work and our continued interest in animal sentience matters because it encourages us to be more aware of our impacts on animals and their living environments. By recognizing their sentience we recognize their ability to feel and can better see life from their perspective.

Animals and humans both have the ability to empathize and they often show high levels of empathy and care for other creatures. There are stories of elephants finding lost adventurers and forming barriers around those individuals to protect them from wild hyenas. Humpback whales have also been known to save seals from orca attacks. While demonstrating care is not the same as demonstrating emotion, it seems a level of empathy, defined as the capacity to respond with an appropriate emotion to another’s mental state, could be at play in these situations where animals are offering protection or care across species.

Some animals choose to present their happiness through play. When at play, animals seem to have no main goal other than to enjoy themselves and from what we can see when we view them at play, they thoroughly enjoy being in the moment. Some animal experts have even seen animals search for play opportunities in the wild. For instance, young elk have been known to leap into snow banks repeatedly for fun and buffaloe have been seen voluntarily running over slick ice while releasing audible exclamations of happiness. Pigface, a Nile soft-shelled turtle at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. plays by pushing a basketball in front of him as he swims, similarly to how a dog would push a ball on land. Even animals that are assumed to be dangerous, such as American Alligators, have been known to repetitively slip down natural water slides because they find enjoyment in the activity. Some animals, like kangaroos, lower defensive behavior to play fight by pawing at one another instead of throwing heavy punches.

Koko, the famous gorilla that learned sign language, showed joy through play as well. Koko was known to have a love for kittens and her favorite books were The Three Little Kittens and Puss’n’Boots. At one point Koko requested a kitten and her American Sign Language teachers provided her with a plush cat toy. Unhappy with the stationary feline, Koko used sign language to communicate her upset and sadness. In July of 1984, Koko was given the opportunity to choose a real kitten from a litter and she chose a grey and white Manx. She named this cat All Ball and grew to become the cat’s parent of sorts. Koko’s caregivers noted that she would often sign “Soft. Good. Cat.” when holding the feline. The two furry creatures provided each other with many opportunities for play and enjoyment but unfortunately All Ball passed away five months later after being struck by a moving vehicle. When notified of the tragedy, Koko expressed much sadness as she whimpered. She later adopted two more cats, Lipstick and Smokey. It was evident that Koko and her feline pets found happiness in each other’s company. As you may have experienced with your family critters at home, companionship as displayed in Koko’s relationships can also provide joy to animals.

Companion animals such as cats and dogs often express their happiness through body language. Happy dogs most often wag their tails, roll around on their backs, and display a strong interest in play. Dogs also use higher-pitched barks to express their joy. Some researchers even believe that dogs laugh by breathing heavily through their loose lips. This behavior has been noted when dogs are expressing enjoyment but are not participating in play that would make them winded. When cats express joy they likely purr, meow often, and take interest in play and exercise without being prompted to participate. Similarly to dogs, joyful cats produce high-pitched meows and they are self sufficient in grooming. Cats have also been known to express their happiness with other felines and humans by cuddling and sleeping with those loved ones.

Of course, we can play a large role in maintaining an animal’s sense of joy. By providing our companion animals with a quality diet, regular opportunities to exercise and play, and routine health checks, we can ensure that they live their happiest lives. We can also support the well-being and happiness of animals in our communities and around the world. Many small efforts, whether it be volunteering at a local animal shelter or donating to organizations that promote animal health and safety, can contribute to an animal’s quality of living and level of joy.

Sources: Bioscience [journal], The Conversation, Greater Good Magazine, Healthy Pets, Mental Floss, National Geographic, Newsweek, Pet Health Council, Project Gutenberg, Science News, Whiskas