How Owners Attribute Emotions to Their Pets

February 7, 2018
JoAnna Pendergrass, DVM

Dr. Pendergrass received her DVM degree from the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine. Following veterinary school, she completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Emory Universitys Yerkes National Primate Research Center. Dr. Pendergrass is the founder and owner ofJPen Communications, a medical communications company.

In Japan, the emotions pet owners attribute to their pets are closely associated with the owners’ level of attachment.

Animals express emotions to reflect their mental and psychological state, providing a window into their overall welfare. Generally, emotions are characterized as primary, or observable, emotions (eg, anger) and secondary emotions (eg, compassion).

Studying the human attribution of emotions to companion animals is a way to explore animal emotions. Results from previous emotional attribution studies in Western countries and in China suggest that the level of awareness of animal welfare influences how humans attribute emotions to their pets. Other potential influences include degree of attachment and traditional culture. It remains debatable, though, whether animals and humans share the same emotional range.

For the current study, recently published in PLoS ONE, a research team evaluated how Japanese pet owners attribute emotions to their pets. Japanese culture, the researchers noted, is influenced by collectivism (group is more important than the individual). Also, the Japanese attitude toward animals is influenced by Shintoism and Confucianism, which advocate for a symbiotic and compassionate human-animal relationship.


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Participating pet owners (n = 546) completed a 4-section questionnaire. One section included the Pet Bonding Scale (PBS), which assesses human attachment to companion animals by having respondents agree or disagree with such statements as “I keep pictures of my pet.” The final section asked respondents to answer whether their pets expressed primary emotions (anger, joy, fear, surprise, disgust, sadness) or secondary emotions (jealousy, compassion, disappointment, shame), indicating level of emotional attribution. The other sections assessed basic demographics and pet characteristics.

Attribution of Emotions

Respondents were nearly evenly split between male and female. All primary emotions were witnessed by over half the respondents, with joy being most frequently witnessed (96%); compassion and jealousy were the most frequently observed secondary emotions (73% and 56%, respectively). “Joy and sadness,” the researchers noted, “were more frequently attributed to dogs than to cats.”

Degree of Attachment

Across respondents, PBS scores were high, indicating strong attachment. PBS scores were significantly higher for female versus male pet owners and for dog versus cat owners. Being female and having a good relationship with the pet were predictors of high PBS scores. Other predictors included the following:

Dog owners

  • Having other pets at home
  • Enjoys grooming the dog
  • Dog can stay at home alone

Cat owners

  • Enjoys caring for pet
  • Behavior resembles pet’s behavior
  • Member of animal welfare organization


The researchers identified many statistically significant correlations between emotional attribution and degree of attachment. Overall, for example, attribution of every emotion except anger was significantly associated with degree of attachment. Interestingly, for female owners, this significant correlation was identified with only 3 emotions (joy, disgust, compassion).

Significant correlations were identified with 8 emotions each for dog and cat owners, suggesting equal importance of dogs and cats in Japanese culture. This differs from Western culture, in which emotions are more frequently attributed to dogs than cats. Researchers believed the collectivist Japanese culture explains this difference.

Bringing It Together

These study results indicate that Japanese pet owners attribute many emotions to their pets—primary emotions moreso than secondary emotions—and that this attribution becomes stronger with higher degrees of attachment. Given that animal emotions provide critical insight into animal welfare, the study’s researchers emphasized that it is “essential to understand animal feelings and promote optimal animal welfare worldwide.”

Dr. Pendergrass received her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree from the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine. Following veterinary school, she completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Emory University’s Yerkes National Primate Research Center. Dr. Pendergrass is the founder and owner of JPen Communications, a medical communications company.