PARIS: Taking in a pet and looking after them is no easy task – not only do you have to make sure the animal is healthy, you also have to keep them happy.
With this in mind, scientists in Denmark and Switzerland say empathy is a valuable quality for pet owners because it helps them better understand their furry friend.
To reach this conclusion, the team from the University of Copenhagen and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich played the sounds of six different mammals to 1,024 people from 48 countries.
Recordings of goats, cattle, horses, pigs and wild boars were played to the study participants, along with sounds produced by human actors.
The goal was to determine if they were able to recognise when the animal was stressed or excited, sad or nervous.
The scientists also asked respondents to provide information about their age, gender, and education level, as well as to complete an empathy test to see if these factors played any role in their ability to identify emotions in animals.
And it would appear they do.
“Our results show that, based on its sounds we, humans, can determine whether or not an animal is stressed or excited, and whether it is expressing positive or negative emotions,” said Elodie Briefer, a behavioural biologist at the University of Copenhagen and co-author of the study.
Specifically, the participants were, on average, able to identify a state of emotional arousal in the different mammals in 54.1% of cases. They were slightly better at recognising the valence of an emotion, i.e. whether it was positive or negative, in 55.3% of cases.
But certain factors appear to be associated with greater capability of correctly interpreting the sounds produced by mammals, according to the authors of this study, recently published in the journal “Royal Society Open Science”. Empathy is one of them.
In other words, an individual who shows compassion towards their peers will tend to be more attuned to an animal, and thus better understand its emotional state.
Age also seems to play an important role: the researchers found that individuals aged between 20 and 29 were better at identifying emotions in animals – an ability that those under 20 seem to lack, and which becomes less detectable with age.
For Briefer, the results of this study show that there are many more similarities between humans and animals than one might think.
“Animal welfare is defined by the emotional life of animals. Therefore, new knowledge provided by this study is important for both basic and applied research.
“It increases the understanding of animal emotions, and it opens opportunities to improve that understanding,” she said.