Understanding and Recognizing Emotional Systems in Animals

September 4, 2018

When evaluating a patient’s emotional state there needs to be a clear definition of the term in order to minimize confusion and misdiagnosis.

Daniel Mills, BVSc, PhD, FRCVS, DECAWBM, professor of veterinary behavioral medicine at the University of Lincoln, explains that when evaluating a patient’s emotional state there needs to be a clear definition of the term in order to minimize confusion and misdiagnosis.

"The idea of frustration—and people have sort of have talked about it—one of the issues though perhaps is that within veterinary behavior, I think we've been fairly poor in our use of language. A lot of the terms that we use are used in common language as well. So for example, the term stress. And stress means different things to different people. If you ask the man on the street or woman on the street what stress is they'll probably refer to sort of it being an unpleasant experience, but actually as scientists sometimes you define the term stress as, for example, of rising cortisol and that's actually using the term stress as, stress is considered in that context, anything that takes the animal out of its normal homeostatic state; it has to make an effort. But the problem is sometimes people start by sort of defining it in terms of that arouse or the increased effort that's required and then make the assumption that that indicates that the animal is suffering. Well only by studying the individual emotions can we start to actually really distinguish between stress that is good, because you know when we're doing something that we're laughing a lot and things like that our cortisol levels will go up, but equally when we're terrified our cortisol levels go up.

So it's really important that we differentiate the emotions and we use a rational approach and a scientific approach in order to infer the different emotions. And using that we suggest that, you know, there's probably about 9 different emotional states that we need to be aware of in dogs in order to try and evaluate their behavior. So we have a general emotion associated with desire, where the animal is sort of sampling the environment and it's the sort of thing that leaves leads dogs and cats to find their food, we have an emotional state associated with barriers to that which is called frustration, we have a fear system, we have a system associated with the bond between an animal and its caregiver—and you can call that the attachment bond. But again one of the one of the things about this terminology, how we use the term scientifically and how they're often used, can be confused because in the neurophysiological literature that relationship or that emotional system has been referred to as panic, but we also use the word panic for an intense fear.

So you've got to be very clear with your thinking in order to make progress with this. We've got emotional systems associated with if you perceive somebody as you know an affiliate, somebody you want to just get on with, then you evaluate them differently to other social stimuli. And so a number of these emotions are actually associated with categorizing the social world. So we have a relationship between sexual partners, which is different to social affiliate. We have a relationship between the care receiver and the caregiver, which is not the same. So if you think about a mother and her offspring, that's the relationship between the caregiver and the care receiver and that's a different type of emotional reaction to the relationship between the care receiver and the caregiver, which is more of the attachment.

And then actually in biology we also recognize that there are in social groups all members of the social group have to make a meaningful contribution, and those that don't—or if you've got a good social group and you don't want to take on somebody else or you believe that they might be a cost—then you reject them. So there's an emotional system for detecting cheats and sort of freeloaders. And so what we've been doing is we're trying to systematically look at using the 4 components that I mentioned: the context, so that's sort of the appraisal element of what is going on, looking at the arousal, looking at the behavioral tendencies, and looking at the communicative element we're starting to be able to actually code these differently in dogs. And there may be other emotions out there. For example, in evolution you expect things to be very efficient. And these are not unique emotional circuits, these are networks that have a pervasive effect on the brain, so there is a commonality that one of the other emotion systems is pain and that has some systems is pain and that has some know, if something hurts then you quickly learn to avoid it. So it's not surprising equally the attachment system between a dependent and the caregiver has its origins probably in some of the pain circuits. And they're very closely linked and opiates can be quite important to them and you know opiates are in addictive, but that ensures that's a very strong bond between an infant and its mother so that it evolutionarily it stays close by."