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Animal Behavior

Understanding Animal Behavior

The study of animal behavior is a cornerstone of experimental psychology, shedding light on how animals interact with each other and their environments, and why they behave the way they do. By studying animal behavior, humans can learn more about their own behavior—a field known as comparative psychology.

Animal behavior research is particularly relevant to the study of human behavior when it comes to the preservation of a species, or how an animal’s behavior helps it survive. The behavior of animals in stressful or aggressive situations can be studied to help find solutions for humans in similar circumstances, or to provide insight for dealing with depression, anxiety, or similar mental health disorders.

Animal-assisted therapy, in which dogs, horses, and other domestic animals help facilitate different forms of therapy, can be helpful for individuals who are socially isolated, living with a diagnosis on the autism spectrum, or suffering from a mood disorder or post-traumatic stress. Interacting with animals has been found to increase humans' levels of oxytocin, a hormone that enhances social bonding. Animal behaviorists are also interested in the ways animals themselves may benefit from relationships with humans.

Do Animals Have Thoughts and Emotions?

Many researchers who study animal cognition agree that animals “think”—that is, they perceive and react to their environment, interact with one another, and experience different emotions, like stress or fear. Whether they are “conscious” in the same way that humans are, however, has been widely debated in both the fields of ethology (the study of animal behavior) and psychology.

Animals can communicate emotion to one another, but this does not qualify as language. Language is an exchange of information using non-fixed symbols (speech). Animals produce innate signals to warn or manipulate other animals (such as the screech of an eagle when it encounters predators). They cannot vary these sounds to create new signals that are arbitrary and content-rich, as do humans.

Are Pets Good For Your Health?

Humans and house pets such as dogs have co-evolved ever since humans first domesticated animals some 14,000 years ago. Dogs and cats are beloved creatures the world over, and are the lynchpin of a multi-billion dollar pet product industry. The so-called pet effect is the wide-spread belief that owning a pet will make one healthier and happier. This effect may be more anecdotal than reality-based, as many studies find no support or even counter-evidence for the idea that living with a pet enhances human quality of life. In rare cases pets can transmit serious disorders, such as toxoplasmosis via cat's litter boxes or autoimmune disorders associated with pet birds.

That said, in an era when contact with the natural world is on the decline for many, humans' complex and loving relationship with house pets will endure.

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