Of course! It seems like a simple question, but as is often the case, our big, complicated brains allow us to add nuance to the answer. I’ve gone on record as arguing that yes indeed, mammals like dogs and horses can be happy, how could they not be? Feeling good is a way for the body to tell the brain (as if they were separate, forgive me for this simplistic duality) that it is in an environment that is safe and healthy. The neuro-hormones associated with happiness, like dopamine and oxytocin are shared by all mammals, and expressive mammals like dogs have the same facial expressions as we do when we are happy ourselves. I write about this in the book For the Love of a Dog and show examples in the DVD of the same name.
However, I was reminded that the question has more depth than “can a dog feel happy?” while reading the book Mental Health and Well-being in Animals, edited by Frank McMillan. It is an excellent book for anyone interested in the mental life of animals, with chapters by Pam Reid, Marian Dawkins (on suffering, always an extremely thoughtful writer), Mark Bekoff, Suzanne Hetts, Temple Grandin, Jaak Panskepp, Bernie Rolland, and on and on. A truly impressive collection of knowledgeable, thoughtful people.
McMillan himself wrote the chapter titled “Do Animals Experience True Happiness?” In it, he reminds us that the concept of “happy” has two meanings: 1) a temporary mood or short term experience (joy, enthusiasm, pleasure) and 2) a long-term state associated with, in his words, “one’s evaluative overview of life.” In other words, there is a difference between being happy the moment you discovered you won a prize, and whether you’d describe your life as a happy one. “We just want you to be happy, dear,” coming from your parents isn’t asking that you have a few seconds of pleasure from a chocolate chip cookie, but rather enjoy a long-term state of satisfaction and contentment with life overall.
McMillan suggests that we use the term “happy” for the short-term state and “happiness” for the long-term one. It’s the “happy life” aspect of happiness that causes people to question whether animals can experience happiness. All biologists I know agree that mammals can experience short term pleasure, but some argue that animals like dogs are not able to evaluate and make judgements about their lives. McMillan writes an extremely thoughtful and thought-provoking article about this issue, arguing in part that animals exhibit many of the same needs that people have in order to achieve long-term happiness (such as control over their environment, a sense of achievement, and comparisons with others).
These are important and interesting arguments, and McMillan ends the article with an anecdote of a Beagle named Billy, whose relentless enthusiasm makes it impossible not to describe him as an animal who experiences happiness. Billy’s case brings us the concept of “set point,” or the well recognized tendency of individuals to have a base level of happiness (or lack thereof) that may be influenced by short term events, but not for long. I’d add that given what we now know about neurobiology and behavior, much of a person’s emotional approach to life is a question of how their brains function, based both on genetics and experience. Thus, it seems to me that “happiness” is not just a matter of cognitive judgements about one’s life, but also about one’s brain function and physiology. Our dogs may not make the same kind of judgements about their lives as we do (Oh, if only I’d…. when I was younger!), but it does seem reasonable that individual mammals have the same set of biological factors that influence whether we are generally cheerful or not as we go through out days. I’ve known so many dogs I’d call truly happy, others I’d categorize as experiencing “happy” times but not true happiness. You? Willie, by the way, seems to tilt between extreme joy and extreme anxiety on a daily basis. What about your dogs? (And you… would you describe yourself as a “happy person?” Do you think that influences your dog(s)?)
MEANWHILE, back on the farm: Holy moly, there is a lot going on. The wolf controversy continues to take lots of my time (about to do an interview on it now, testifying next week at the NRB in Eau Claire) and I have lots of evening talks to prepare for. In addition, fall in the country is wonderful and, well …, full. There are apples to pick & process for my annual apple/wild plum butter sauce, tons of gardening to do (just ordered a few tons of mulch, oh my), barns to clean out, windows to wash, garages to clean, trees to trim, thistles to kill, and on and on. And now, cats to get final vaccinations for . . .
Introducing the next, and hopefully VERY long, chapter in life on the farm. As many of you know, after a feral cat had kittens in my barn I had hopes of taming her and keeping one her kittens as barn cats. She had other plans, being a truly wild animal, and after I had her spayed, she attempted to lure her kitten away from the barn and into the woods. One can hardly blame her; after all, from her perspective, I stole her kittens (probably ate them for all she knew), trapped and tortured her and then expected her to stay? I wish I knew where she was, but am glad that she is spayed and won’t be having more litters.
That left me with no cats on the farm at all, and when the cats away…. Yup, the mice will play. Worse, the rats were not just increasing, they were beginning to hold conventions. I expected to walk into the barn and find them holding little cell phones and video cameras. I could write an entire article on rats, and how much I adore domestic ones as pets, and how much I dislike having to rid the barn of them. I’ll summarize by saying that the last time I pretended there were no rats in the barn they ended up in my house. It’s one thing to have a pet rat. It’s another altogether to see a wild one run across your kitchen floor and discover the gaping holes they’d chewed in your cabinets. (And to hear your friends suggest that they might never visit again.)
As often happens, the universe provided: Right after Xena the feral cat disappeared and Calico had found a wonderful new home, I learned that neighbors had a momma cat who showed up in their shed half dead, starved and pregnant. She eventually had 7 healthy kittens, thanks to the care and concern my friends showered upon her. Momma was clearly raised around people, she was super friendly and sought out people to rub against. When I contacted them they had one kitten left and also needed to find a home for momma. And so, here they are, momma Nellie (bottom) and kitten Polly, who are now settled into Redstart Farm, I hope for many, many years to come. They came with horrific diarrhea but I think we have that turned around. Nellie continues to gain weight and Polly is growing like a weed. Polly (both cats are polydactyl) is all white but her eyes are green and she does not appear to be deaf. She might have some health challenges in the future (all white cats are more susceptible to skin cancer) but I’ll give her the absolute best life I can. And how many barn cats have a cat tree in the hay mow?
Here’s one of fall’s most reliable predictors: the wild sunflowers in bloom in front of the barn. It is always bittersweet to see them.
But it is cool (yeah!) and raining today (even better) and we get to be home this weekend. Willie and I will work sheep a little, but I’m afraid his shoulder is regressing. He was visibly limping last week, so we’re back to exercise restrictions and lots of PT exercises. I honestly don’t know if he’s going to be able to do the physical work to be able to compete in trials–driving a big course takes lots of ‘short stopping’ and stress on his injured ligaments. (His tendon was surgically repaired, but no such possibility for the medial ligaments that were torn.) We’ll see, I’m taking a long term, philosophic approach, and remind myself every day that Willie still can work sheep at the farm, and that’s more important to him than anything else. He’s entered in one more trial and a sheepdog clinic in mid October, we’ll see how he’s doing. He doesn’t know about any of this and is happy it’s cool and that Jim and I are home and he gets to work sheep a little bit. Life is good.