By Dr Katrina Ward
DO you wonder what non-human animals have in common with people? How do they feel?
Darwin’s theory of evolutionary continuity expresses the idea that differences between species are differences in degree, rather than differences in kind.
We can take ears for example; the basic inner workings of dogs’ and humans’ ears are the same, but externally they appear different and the range of acoustic ability varies between humans and dogs.
Many biologists, ecologists and neuroscientists reason that because many neuroanatomical structures are shared between species (including the parts of the brain associated with emotions), then so should many species be able to feel emotions, although possibly in a slightly different way.
I don’t know a pet owner who doesn’t think their pet feels emotions.
New Zealand has passed its Animal Welfare Amendment Bill in May this year, which now recognises animals as sentient and Canberra may follow suit.
The word sentience acknowledges that positive and negative emotional states are experienced by animals, including pain and distress.
The insertion of this word into the Animal Welfare Act signifies acceptance that public attitude has changed surrounding treatment of animals in general and that practices which were once accepted are now deemed unacceptable.
Our pets will experience negative emotional states at some stages in their lives.
That is a given.
They might escape and go without food for a few days; they might get stung by a wasp or have a door slam on their tail.
What pets don’t need is their human carer to be deliberately putting them into a negative emotional state of distress, fear or pain through the application of outdated and unnecessarily cruel training techniques.
Given the wealth of scientific literature exposing the ineffectiveness and even harm in punitive training, we can breathe a collective sigh of relief that no pet owner should need to adhere to advice recommending the scruffing of dogs, yelling in their pet’s face, smacking noses or electric shock.
Learning shouldn’t hurt.
Using positive reinforcement (i.e. giving them something that they enjoy, that makes them feel good, when they do something we like) we can teach pets what we want them to do and help them enjoy learning, as well as promote a peaceful, trusting relationship.
It is also encouraging to know that people who are more compassionate towards animals are more compassionate towards people.
This old notion has been around for some time, but is also backed up by research in the field of psychology: people who recognise the similarities between animals and humans are less likely to dehumanise other human “outgroups”, such as refugees, immigrants and racial minorities.
So, looking more at what we have in common with our pets than what separates us can lead to more compassion generally.
And compassion, without doubt, has got to be good for all the inhabitants of our shared world.