Can animals be happy?
What makes you happy? How important is it to you to be happy? Is it possible that other animals can be happy too? What would happiness mean to them?
We can assume that most animals have an interest in not being hungry, not being sick, and not feeling scared or being in pain. And if an animal has wings, it will want to be able to use them, or if an elephant has a trunk, it will want to be able to use it. But we as humans all like to have good things in life – to feel comfortable, fulfilled, and happy. And science is discovering that this is the same for many animals, too!1
It can be hard to imagine what goes on in an animal's mind. Instead we rely on science to look at what animals do and don't like, and what they need to lead a fulfilling life. We can do this by observing their behaviour, what things they prefer when given choices, and how they respond internally to things that they encounter.2
And when we think about things that animals need to make them happy, sometimes it can be useful to put ourselves in their shoes3 and ask, "what would I feel like if I was a chicken in this chicken's shoes". Although, it is important not to assume too much that they feel and need the same things as we do - a dog may like ice cream or eating your left-overs, but that doesn't mean that living the life of a human is good for it! Likewise, if an animal does not react in the same way to something as a human would, that does not mean that it does not experience it. Even though we may run away in fright if we were being chased by a lion, a sheep may freeze – this does not mean that it isn't just as scared of the lion as we are!
In thinking about how to improve the lives of animals in your care, remember that positive experiences such as playfulness, curiosity, fulfilment, and comfort may be just as important to animals as they are to us. Animals can experience happiness, in ways similar to us, but also in their own species-specific ways.
1 Green, TC and Mellor, DJ (2011) Extending ideas about animal welfare assessment to include 'quality of life' and related concepts, New Zealand Veterinary Journal, pg 263-271; Duncan, I (2006) The changing concept of animal sentience, Applied animal behaviour science, pg 11-19
2Fitzpatrick, J, Scott, M, Nolan, A (2006) Assessment of pain and welfare in sheep, Small Ruminant Research, pg 55-61; Broom, D. (1991) Assessing welfare and suffering, Behavioural Processes, pg 117-123
3Animal Welfare: Limping Towards Eden (2005) Webster, J., Universities Federation for Animal Welfare