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Pets Large & Small

Animals do have feelings

Jennifer Vanderau
Cumberland Valley Animal Shelter

(8/2013) Years ago, I wrote a column about the fact that animals have feelings. I remember receiving a very detailed, four-page, hand written reply detailing how wrong my sentiment was.

Yet, here I am, probably a decade later, making the same statement -- because I still believe it to be true.

This time, though, I've got examples.

Excitement and joy and happiness are quite simple to establish in our pets. Imagine a pup running, tail wagging, tongue hanging out. Imagine a cat purring, with that slanted-eyed look of bliss. I know we've all seen that -- it's almost the physical embodiment of pure delight.

We know when animals are upset -- we hear whining or hissing or get a growl or a swipe with a paw. Anger's another easy one, especially with cats. You know a snarling cat with ears flat against his head is pretty darn mad.

Animals also grieve. They can grieve their fellow four-legged family and they can also grieve the loss of a beloved human.

Grief is a bit trickier to prove because while humans often express our sadness with tears (or sometimes even anger), pets don't really have that ability. Their grief may come out in ways we don't expect.

Some animals stop or slow down their eating habits. I've talked with people who tell me when one of their pets passed away, it took forever to get the other one to eat again. He wasn't interested in food. You know how sometimes when you're real upset, a sandwich doesn't look appetizing at all. Uh huh. Is it such a surprise that our pets can feel the same?

That's grief, folks.

Animals sometimes become more or less vocal than they were after losing a four-legged sibling. If you've got a talker who suddenly doesn't say a word because his brother or buddy is gone, that can be an expression of sadness. The same can be true of a characteristically quiet one who suddenly yaps up a storm.

We had two of the most adorable puppies at the shelter recently. They were brothers -- pitbull mixes -- and so incredibly dear. I took one of the siblings with me on an outing one day. If memory serves, we went to visit kids at an elementary school (they loved him, needless to say).

By the time we returned, his brother had been adopted. Oh, how it bothers me when that happens. When we left, his brother was in the cage; when we returned, he wasn't. Well, I put that little guy back on his bed and I watched him look around his dog den, obviously searching and when he found nothing, he glanced up to me with the saddest expression.

I'm telling you, you could SEE it in his eyes. (I know this isn't a terribly scientific claim -- my chemistry-teacher father is likely rolling his eyes at the moment -- but when dealing with emotions, a lot of times, you have to go with your gut and I'm telling you, that puppy missed his brother.)

The good news is he got adopted and has another canine sibling -- a brother much bigger than he is, who I'm sure will teach him the ropes. We have a photo of them together (they're "happy ending") in the hallway leading to the kennels. Stop by and take a look. It's such a feel-good picture.

But the moment I put him alone in that kennel, you could tell he needed a friend.

Animals also grieve for people. I've read countless stories -- many of which tug on my heart -- where animals attend funeral services for their people or continue to look for dad to come home or mom to feed them supper.

One of the most famous of these is the Akita who would travel with his human dad to the train station every day. When the man died one day during the trip, the Akita would arrive at the station -- for the same train his dad took -- every day for the next nine years.

Most recently, after a Navy Seal died in Afghanistan, his Lab laid by his casket during the entire service. Again, from the description of those in attendance, that canine was the epitome of grief -- slow breathing, drooping eyes. He just wanted his dad back.

Even wild animals grieve -- elephants, gorillas, and the like. One mother gorilla in a zoo refused to hand over her three-month-old baby after he'd passed away. She carried him with her for days.

All of these are signs of grief.

Our pets are capable of so very much. They make our lives whole and rich and noteworthy. Even though there are people who want to say they are "just animals" and incapable of true emotion, those of us who witness it, know the truth.

So be kind to our four-legged friends and remember that they will often experience joy and pain and real sorrow. They feel much more than we mere humans will likely ever really know.

Jennifer Vanderau is the Director of Communications for the Cumberland Valley Animal Shelter in Chambersburg, Pa., and can be reached at The shelter accepts both monetary and pet supply donations. For more information, call the shelter at (717) 263-5791 or visit the website

Read other articles by Jennifer Vanderau