Put on a Happy Face
How many faces do you show the world? Happy, sad, surprised, scared, mad, excited? Yes, all those and more. Facial expressions are the way our brains move the muscles in our faces to express the way we feel. We raise our eyebrows in surprise, we lower our eyelids in shyness, and we smile with happiness. That last facial expression is the one we most like to experience ourselves as well as to see in others.
We know what a happy smile looks like on the faces of our friends and families, but do our animals smile? And if they do, does the control of the facial muscles that create that smile come from some kind of emotion?
You’ve probably seen animals whose faces appear to express emotions. Your dog for example. Does his mouth turn up at the corners when you’re playing or when it’s dinnertime? No animal has more human-like facial expressions than our close relative the chimpanzee. They often flash a big teeth-baring grin when they are fooling around or when they want humans to pay special attention to them…perhaps even to like them. Whether or not these grins actually have something to do with a feeling of happiness, the delighted reaction they get from humans gives chimps a good reason to repeat them again and again.
Until recently, most animal behaviorists believed that an animal’s use of what we call a smile is no more than a collection of conditioned reflexes that move the muscles in the face. But new thinking on the subject is now allowing for the possibility that animals are expressing happiness when they “smile.” In fact several new theories go so far as to attribute primary emotions like fear, sadness, anger and happiness – and even some secondary emotions like jealousy and embarrassment – to animals. Think of the family dog that is “jealous” of a new baby. Or the one that hides in embarrassment after a bad haircut or a social breach.
Professor Nicholas Dodman, head of animal behavior at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine holds that scientists have underestimated the emotional range of animals – particularly domesticated species like dogs and cats. Dodman even believes that dogs have a sense of humor and show it with a laugh that is created by a kind of a breathy forced exhalation. This theory is supported by a 2005 study, which offered evidence that the stress level of dogs confined to animal shelters dropped when they were played a recording of that dog-laugh vocalization.
As for cats, Dodman notes that they have naturally bowed mouths so it’s tricky to pinpoint an actual smile. But cat lovers don’t need a cat-grin to know that their pets are smart enough to respond to training (if it suits them) and sensitive enough to the moods of their people to administer loving therapy when needed.
What do you think? Are your pets smiling when you play with them and give them back scratches?