The Science of Love in the Animal Kingdom

February 10 2016

It’s a safe bet that many people celebrating Valentine’s Day this weekend will feel like their bond is uniquely special – whether others agree is another story.

But, seemingly unparalleled love may be much less exclusive than we think. In fact, research shows love, affection and caring is hardly unique to humans.

Many forms of love

  • Animals need love and support too. Social support among farm animals can help improve their physical and psychological welfare (Rault, 2012).
  • Apparently animals can also be prey to judging on looks: Chickens agree with humans on the attractiveness of men and women 98% of the time (Ghirlanda et al., 2002).
  • Grief is not only felt by humans. Elephants, too, mourn the death of a loved one, and have been seen to form a circle around an elephant hit by a dart during radio-collar programs. When an elephant was dying, both related and non-related elephants showed helping behaviour and exhibited what was thought to be compassion and concern (Douglas-Hamilton et al., 2006).

  • As anyone with a dog will know, empathy can is found in animals. Dogs show a greater emotional response to humans when they cry, compared to when they talk (Custance et al., 2012).
  • But then, so is jealousy. Research has shown that dogs express jealousy when their owners display affectionate behaviour towards other dogs (Harris & Prouvost, 2014).

  • Animals form emotional attachments. Following the death of his sister, an 18-year-old captive brown bear only slept for a third of the time he did when his sister was alive, and spent more time inactive. It is likely the two had developed a close bond, and the loss was greatly felt (Mattellio et al., 2014).
  • They even have courting rituals. Whales, for example, cross their flippers when courting (Bekoff, 2014).

Thank you for sharing our love of animals, on Valentine’s Day and on every other.

P.S. for more on animal emotions and sentience, read our Sentience Manager, Helen Proctor’s article on the emotional lives of elephants.

References and further reading

Rault, J.L (2012). Friends with benefits: Social support and its relevance for farm animal welfare. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 136(1), 1-14.

Ghirlanda, S., Jansson, L., & Enquist, M. (2002). Chickens prefer beautiful humans. Human Nature, 13(3), 383-389.

Douglas-Hamilton, I., Bhalla, S., Wittemyer, G., & Vollrath, F. (2006).  Behavioural reactions of elephants towards a dying and deceased matriarch. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 100, 87-102.

Custance, D.M., & Mayer, J. (2012). Empathic-like responding by domestic dogs (Canis familiaris) to distress in humans: an exploratory study. Animal Cognition, 15(2), 851-859.

Mattiello S, Brignoli SM, Cordedda A, Pedroni B, Colombo C, Rosi F (2014) Effect of the change of social environment on the behavior of a captive brown bear (Ursus arctos). Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research 9:119–123.

Harris, C. R., & Prouvost, C. (2014). Jealousy in Dogs. PloS one, 97(7), e94597.

Bekoff, M. (2000). Animal Emotions: Exploring Passionate Natures: Current interdisciplinary research provides compelling evidence that many animals experience such emotions as joy, fear, love, despair, and grief—we are not alone. BioScience 50 (10): 861-870.

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