The Secret (Mental Health) Lives of Pets: What Pets Really Think and Feel

Plenty of scientific research shows that spending time with pets and animals offers myriad physical and mental health benefits to humans—from increasing survival rates after a heart attack and lowering blood pressure, to decreasing loneliness, reducing stress and anxiety, and even boosting the “love hormone” oxytocin just by gazing into a dog’s eyes.

If pets have proven to be beneficial to human mental health and wellbeing, it’s worth asking: What are they getting out of their relationship with us? Are they receiving the same benefits? Should we be concerned about their mental health?

Rover sat down with Philip Tedeschi, Licensed Clinical Social Worker, founder and director emeritus of the University of Denver’s Institute for Human-Animal Connection, and co-director of the new Institute for Animal Sentience and Protection to discuss the emotional lives of pets, why we should be concerned with our pets’ mental health, how our pets’ emotional wellbeing effects the human-pet bond, and more. 

If spending time with animals is good for our mental health, what do we owe the animals who enrich our lives? Photo courtesy Philip Tedeschi

Rover: I know it probably seems obvious to people who love their pets, but are pets sentient beings and individuals with their own feelings, fears, and desires that may be different from others of their own species?

Philip Tedeschi: The first thing I would say to that question—and I think most people know this already, even without having to be an animal expert—is that of course our companion animals are sentient.

What do we mean when we’re talking about sentience? Maybe the most direct concept that we’re trying to get across is this idea of: Do other animals have emotions? And the answer to that is we have all kinds of reasons to understand that other animals have emotions.

Non-human animals are sentient beings—thinking, feeling individuals with complex emotional lives, just like us. 

There was a well-known event called the Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness (in 2012) that brought together many of the world’s scientists who study animal cognition and emotion. There was an overwhelming agreement that non-human animals have emotions.

Watch almost any animal in relation to the way it interacts with its offspring. Can we see things that we recognize in our own interaction and emotions and thoughts about our own children? What does it feel like when they’re separated or harmed or under threat?

So, there are these opportunities to start to deconstruct some of the old perspectives on our treatment of other animals. In part, we should be interested in doing that because it’ll improve our own communities and our own lives and families and our own relationships with others, including animals.

Most animal cognition experts agree that non-human animals are sentient, meaning that animals have complex thoughts and feelings. Photo courtesy Sally Reeder

R: “Deconstructing old perspectives of our treatment of animals,” is this what you plan to explore at the new Institute for Animal Sentience and Protection? 

PT: I think the long-range goal is to have impact come from the work that comes out of the institute. We’ll have the ability to incentivize new types of research into this area. What we’re really looking for are ways for this knowledge to inform the concepts that influence policy and legislation, as well as some of the other constructs—things like our own moral codes. There are many types of ways in which people interact with animals that are quite problematic but are considered completely legal and socially acceptable.

Rover Pet People Panelist and Professor and Researcher of the Human-Animal Bond, Philip Tedeschi, shares a smile with his Labrador Retriever, Samara. Photo courtesy Philip Tedeschi

Around 34 countries have declared animals as sentient beings. Unfortunately, the United States is still pretty stubborn on this issue. It emanates from this idea that animals are considered property from a legal standpoint. They’re not considered having any kind of legal position in the eyes of the court. But that’s changing around the world in ways that have direct implications on legislation and policy.

One example would be: There are countries in Europe where if you’re going to own a guinea pig, you actually have to own two guinea pigs, because of the nature of those species needing to be kept in some kind of family interactive environment.

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R: I’d love to hear your thoughts about ways that we can nurture our pets’ mental health. For starters, what constitutes a healthy state of mind for one of our companion animals?

PT: Sometimes we use the term “belief in animal mind”—that whole idea of recognizing that your dog might have an opinion about all kinds of things going on, and then respecting that opinion. For example, something as simple as: Do you believe your animal can get bored or not?

That’s happening in literally hundreds of millions of homes every day in the United States, where we have dogs who are struggling with emotional experiences of being left alone—often without their human person thinking about the struggles of being bored and lonely and isolated every day, and then wondering why their animal might have various kinds of behavioral manifestations of that.

Companion animals can’t speak to us, but they are communicating all the time. Photo courtesy Philip Tedeschi

R: The idea of boredom in pets makes me think of “enrichment” activities, such as puzzle toys or interactive games, to keep pets stimulated and happy. Do you think that the growing awareness of animal sentience is contributing to this broader push to encourage people to offer more enrichment activities to their pets?

PT: No doubt about it—in taste, touch, smell, hearing, the whole kaleidoscope of capacity for senses. To take that one step further, one of the other contributors to this conversation that I’ve found to be really having made a significant impact is the work of people like Dr. Martha Nussbaum and what she calls the capabilities approach. She has just published a book called “Justice for Animals,” which largely is framed around this concept of the capabilities, and I won’t go into this in a lot of detail because this would take us another week.

Dr. Nussbaum would suggest that one of the things we could do would be to make species-specific lists of things that are both harmful to their wellbeing, and also a list of things that allow them to flourish.

Building a list of the flourishing factors—that’s a really good idea. Put it right on your refrigerator. And especially as a dog is getting older, what are the things that matter to them and their wellbeing in their life? Ensuring that they’re able to get those will extend the quality of their life and the length of their life as well.

Imagine living with somebody who, whenever they wanted to, just grabs you.

R: What are other ways we can respect the feelings of our pets?

PT: Another one that I believe we routinely kind of fail to appreciate is the significance of touch, or maybe even more pointedly, the concept of consent. In our society, we’ve made some headway recognizing that there are some issues involved with putting hands on another person without their consent, but with animals, we do this all the time.

Once you start to actually invite your animal to have opinions on things like that—on how they’re being interacted with, how they’re being physically manipulated or picked up or moved or petted—you will find that animal actually appreciates that about your interaction with them, and it deepens your connection to them. 

Powerlessness is one of the emotions that we know that many animals—including people—can experience and is one of the most detrimental to our mental health.

Powerlessness is one of the emotions that we know that many animals—including people—can experience and is one of the most detrimental to our mental health.

R: When I was talking with you about your work with your therapy dog, Samara, I learned that you have a new Labrador Retriever puppy, Juniper. You were hoping she would be able to do social work outreach with you, as a therapy dog like Samara, but that if she didn’t want to or enjoy the work, then you would let her choose her job.

Has Juniper picked a job? And is that one way that we can be better advocates for working dogs and dogs in general?

Tedeschi hoped his puppy, Juniper, might become a therapy dog at University of Denver, but he is committed to letting her choose a job she truly wants to do. Photo courtesy Philip Tedeschi

PT: That’s exactly right. Juniper’s just under two years old now, and it’s pretty clear that she would not want to be a therapy dog that is sitting with you quietly in a therapy office most of the day, at least at this stage of her life.

I could imagine her being good at avalanche search and rescue. She loves using her nose. When we play I will often hide something, like her toy, and she waits patiently until I tell her it’s hidden, and then she goes and covers the entire house and finds it every single time.

R: I love that. When a working animal needs to retire from that job, from old age or injury, is it important to then offer different enrichment activities, just so that they don’t fall into boredom or depression or something like that?

PT: Completely. Samara is definitely at that stage where she’s retiring, and there are times where she still wants to go. Her biggest challenge, I think, that has made it less enjoyable for her is the challenge of just getting in and out of a vehicle.

Would we expect our 85-year-old parent to climb into a vehicle without assistance? If we want our older dogs to be able to go places with us, which they still want to do, how do we make that doable? If we can make it doable, oftentimes they will choose to do it.

Every animal is an individual with different opinions, which is one reason why many service dog organizations let dogs choose their job, such as working as guide dogs, diabetic alert dogs, mobility assistance dogs, or search-and-rescue dogs. Photo courtesy Philip Tedeschi

R: Can you talk a little bit about why we should even care if animals have feelings?

PT: I think a question you’re getting at is this moral question: Does it matter how we treat others? And my work would argue that in fact, it has direct implications for the kind of society we live in.

One of the ways we think that child development is related to this issue is that if you grew up in a setting where you’re routinely exposed to an animal that’s in distress, that has direct implications in what we call “neuroception of safety“—which then influences the presence of callous and unemotional traits.

What kind of children do we want to raise?

A society that shows empathy and care for animals helps children like Nick grow up to respect the needs of their pets, like Bowie. Courtesy Christina Jackson

R: I feel like you’ve made a resounding argument for why we should use positive reinforcement training methods with our animals, instead of coercion or punishment or hitting or prong collars…

PT: Totally.

R: What kind of example would that set for children if you’re causing pain and stress and fear to your beloved animal?

PT: And to yourself, right? You might get a dog to learn to walk on a loose leash by being harsh, let’s say. But what have you taught yourself in the process? Where else would you be willing to be harsh to get your way?

I think we have a society that should be very interested in this question around how we go about treating one another—and our treatment of non-humans is part of that question.

Animals are communicating all the time. The question is whether you’re listening or whether you’re paying attention to that communication.

R: I know you’re interested in advocating for all species of animals, but as someone with two beloved dogs, what do you want to share about man’s best friend?

PT: Front and center would be understanding both the species and the individual. They are communicating all the time. The question is whether you’re listening or whether you’re paying attention to that communication.

R: Is there anything you’d like to add?

PT: If we’re going to have relationships with our dogs [and all pets], then helping them have their best life possible is likely to help us have our best relationship with them and our best life.

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