Your Turn

Poll: Do you understand your pet’s emotions, and do they understand yours? The TED community answers

Animals clearly show emotions, says science historian Laurel Braitman in her TED Talk. Which leads to the question: do you understand your pet's feelings? Photo: Kris Krüg/TED

Animals clearly show emotions, says science historian Laurel Braitman in her TED Talk. Which leads to the question: do you understand your pet’s feelings? Photo: Kris Krüg/TED

Pets: they are just like us. Well, maybe.

In her TED Talk, “Depressed dogs, cats with OCD—what animal madness means for us humans,” Laurel Braitman shares her seven years of research on the mental health of animals. “What I discovered is that I do believe they can suffer from mental illness, and [that] trying to identify mental illness in them can help us be better friends to them,” says Braitman, a TED Fellow, in the talk. “Even though you can’t know exactly what’s going on in the mind of a pig or your pug or your partner, that shouldn’t stop you from empathizing with them.” Laurel Braitman: Depressed dogs, cats with OCD — what animal madness means for us humans Laurel Braitman: Depressed dogs, cats with OCD — what animal madness means for us humans

This got us curious: For pet owners out there, do you feel in tune with your pet’s emotions? And does that feel like a two-way street?

Earlier this week, we asked you to take a poll on this subject. What you had to say was fascinating.

First of all, members of the TED community appear to be dog people. 51.1% of the 364 poll respondents have a dog, while 34.3% have a cat. Fish were far less popular—only 4.4% of you have them—and just a handful of you have guinea pigs, hamsters or other rodents, or amphibians or reptiles. When it came to write-in “Other” answers—one of you has ferrets, another has a pair of horses and a select few of you have rabbits. Bonus points for the poll respondent who answered: “I have starfish, crabs, sea cucumbers, coral and sea snails.”

The grand majority of you pet owners—44.2%—have a single pet. 26.6% of you have two pets; 8% have three. We’re especially intrigued by the 14.3% of you who have 4 or more.

When it comes to naming pets, you guys are highly creative. One poll respondent said, “My dog’s name is Meatball, because when she was a baby, she slept like a ball.” Giving human names to animals was hugely popular with you—which feels in line with Braitman’s idea that anthropomorphizing our pets may actually be a good thing. (Three of you, by the way, have pets named Ted.) Many of your pet names are also very erudite. We love the person who named your pets Tau and Science, and the one whose dogs are named Scout and Atticus because, “I’m a big fan of the characters from To Kill A Mockingbird.”

As for whether you have a good understanding of your pet’s emotions, the answer was overwhelmingly: yes. About 71.2% of you feel like you can generally read what your pet is feeling, while 27.7% says that you get your pet at least some of the time. Only three survey respondents threw their arms up in the air, revealing that their pet’s emotions are a total mystery to them.

Even more interesting—48.7% percent of you said that your pet has a good understanding of your emotions. And 71.5% of you said that your pet helps you through hard times often—with an additional 14.2% saying that there’s one major event in life that your pet helped you get through. Your write-in answers on this were very moving. A sampling:

“I was suffering a flare-up of an autoimmune condition, feeling just awful. I woke from a nap to find my three cats surrounding me—one on each side and one at my feet. When I woke up the next morning, they were still ‘on duty.’ This was very calming, as stress makes my symptoms worse.”

“During a period of mourning, my dog remained quietly next to my bed as I slept and wept for weeks. He often rested his chin on the edge of the bed, or simply breathed a bit more audibly than usual as if to remind me that I was not alone in my sorrow. He was silent when I needed silence, and he was only affectionate when I seemed to need it. He managed to give me space/time to mourn while never leaving my side … a delicate balance indeed.”

“These past few years have been harder than I ever imagined I’d have to experience, but my dogs have constantly checked in with me. One paws at me until I put her in my lap and she relaxes her head on my shoulder. Her strong sense of empathy has carried me through.”

“I have had episodic depression and just having my dog around, with her boundless energy and happiness, frequently helped me get some different perspective. Plus, looking after her helped rebalance suicidal thoughts.”

As for Laurel Braitman’s observations that animals manifest signs of mental illness, many of you have witnessed this first-hand. 29.4% said that your pet has shown signs of anxiety; 16.2% have seen signs of abandonment issues; 11.9% suspect that your pet struggles with depression; and 11.9% have a pet with a specific phobia (thunder being the most common). An additional 9.4% have noticed signs of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder; and about 4% have seen what you interpreted as mania, self-destructive tendencies or signs of Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Some of your descriptions of these pets:

“My cat can’t do anything once. If she licks herself, she will lick until the fur starts to come off; if she scratches something, she will scratch until it’s starting to rip apart; if she buries her waste, she will bury it for at least 10-15 minutes. Definitely Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.”

“I have a cat I believe may have an eating disorder; she frequently binge eats to the point of vomiting, and is only concerned with the state of the food dish.”

“My dog still suckles her blanket at 8 years old, and has licked all the paint off the freezer! When she is even a tiny bit anxious she has incontinence problems. She is on medication for this.”

But interestingly, while many of you have noticed signs of mental illness in your pets, many of you noted a kind intelligence that goes along with it. Writes one poll respondent, “My Border Collie gets overly anxious when she does not have tasks or stimuli. I think she is too smart and doesn’t have the appropriate mental outlets. She is also very good at feigning injuries when she feels like she is being ignored.”

Check out the answers to our multiple-choice questions below. And if you didn’t get to take the poll, leave your thoughts in the comments section.


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