Do animals need to experience positive emotions to ensure good welfare?

Picture of Dr. Else Verbeek
Dr. Else Verbeek

Dog behaviour scientist and consultant.

When we think of animal emotions and welfare, we often think about the negative aspects. We think about animals living in impoverished environments, animals lacking social contact, animals in distress and pain, or other horrible scenarios. A lot of recent animal welfare research has been dedicated to studying what practices and environments cause distress to the animal, and on developing better alternatives.
I wonder, though, whether simply avoiding distress and pain automatically ensures good animal welfare?
Or should we perhaps also give animals the opportunity to experience ‘joy’ or ‘pleasure’ (or any animal variant of positive emotion) to ensure their welfare is the best it possibly could be?
This is not an easy question to answer. First of all, avoiding all distress and pain is unrealistic. We all need to do something we don’t like once in a while and that is part of life. For example, an animal won’t like being vaccinated (it involves a needle), but the vaccination will prevent disease and suffering and will therefore benefit the animal in the long run. So, not all pain or distress has a long-term negative impact on animal welfare. This does not mean that it is ok to expose the animal to unnecessary distress (for example, castration without pain relief), but I believe that (mildly) distressing procedures that ensure the animal’s long-term wellbeing are acceptable. Environments and procedures that cause long-term or repeated distress should be avoided at all cost, because they will severely reduce the welfare of the animal.
What about giving the animals the opportunity to experience positive emotions?  And what kind of experiences to animals perceive as positive? Some researchers have suggested that getting rewarded is a positive experience for animals, in particular when some ‘work’ has to be done to get the reward. It has also been suggested that the behavioural anticipation (expectation) shown before receiving a reward is a positive experience for animals. For example, rats, mink and pigs will become much more active and may show play behaviour when they are expecting a positive reward. Animals may appreciate the reward even more when it is bigger than expected. The opposite is also true; a lack of positive anticipatory behaviour before receiving a reward or of positive emotion after receiving the reward (anhedonia) is generally interpreted as a sign of depression.
Play behaviour is considered to be a major indicator of positive welfare in animals. Young animals will only play when all their needs are met and when pain and disease are absent. Play behaviour itself may also be rewarding. Providing space and mates to play with can therefore contribute to positive emotions. However, many animal species only play when they are young (cattle, sheep) and play behaviour may be of limited value to adult animals.
Social interactions are also crucial to the wellbeing of animals. Almost all pets and livestock are social animals, and depriving them of social contact (even when given the best care, top quality food and lots of attention) is likely to have a negative impact on their welfare. Allogrooming (when two members of the same species groom each other) is considered to be a positive experience for monkeys, cattle, horses, pigs and sheep. Allogrooming strengthens social bonds between animals, reduces tension and may also increase hygiene. Providing opportunities for animals to engage in social interactions and allogrooming can make a positive contribution to their welfare.
A current trend to make the lives of animals more pleasant is environmental enrichment that involves adding positive elements to animal housing. Environmental enrichment is often used in zoos (toys for monkeys) and laboratory animals (running wheels for rats). Unfortunately, positive elements are often added to the standard impoverished environments, thereby limiting the impact on animal welfare. However, incorporating some of the above mentioned positive experiences in the animal’s environments could make a positive contribution to the welfare of animals.
There may be other behaviours and resources that animals enjoy. For example, animals may benefit from a positive relationship with their owners/caretakers and how you treat your animals can have a significant impact on their welfare. Positive experiences will also differ between breeds, species and even individual animals. For example, many dogs really enjoy running and chasing balls, but sheep may not appreciate this so much. Also, some dogs will enjoy running more than others. Research in positive emotions in animals has only just begun and lots of work still needs to be done. However, I believe that investigating positive emotions is an important step towards improving animal welfare.
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