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10th August 2010, 11:26am
Emotions help animals to make choices
animal emotions cows New research from the universities of Lincoln and Bristol suggests that to understand how animals experience the world and how they should be treated, people need to better understand their emotional lives.

A review of animal emotion by the University of Lincoln’s Dr Oliver Burman and Bristol University’s Professor Mike Mendl and Dr Liz Paul indicates that, as in humans, emotions may tell animals about how dangerous or opportunity-laden their world is, and guide the choices that they make.

An animal living in a world where it is regularly threatened by predators will develop a negative emotion or 'mood', such as anxiety, whereas one in an environment with plenty of opportunities to acquire resources for survival will be in a more positive mood state.

The researchers argue that these emotional states not only reflect the animal's experiences, they also help it decide how to make choices, especially in ambiguous situations which could have good or bad outcomes. An animal in a negative state will benefit from adopting a safety-first, 'pessimistic' response to an ambiguous event – for example interpreting a rustle in the grass as signalling a predator - while an animal in a positive state will benefit from a more 'optimistic' response, interpreting it as signalling prey.

Dr Oliver Burman, Senior Lecturer in Animal Cognition, Behaviour & Welfare at the University of Lincoln’s School of Biological Sciences, said: “It is increasingly acknowledged that animals can experience a range of emotions. We propose that these emotions also help to guide animals in their decision-making.

“Studying the decisions that animals make might therefore allow us to identify the different emotions that they are experiencing, providing us with the necessary information to improve animal welfare in a variety of species, from farm to companion animals.”

The paper An integrative and functional framework for the study of animal emotion and mood, Michael Mendl, Oliver H. P. Burman and Elizabeth S. Paul, can be viewed here:

The research is funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).

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