Many animal lovers – horse and dog owners certainly – often ascribe human emotions to their pets and are often criticized for it. Well, all you nay-sayers out there may have to eat your hat.

According to researchers at the School of Biological Sciences at Queen’s University Belfast, animals experience emotions much like humans – exhibiting positive moods when they “win” and negative moods when they encounter a “loss”.

What does that mean exactly? Does your gelding get depressed when he has 12 faults in the jump-off? Or does your filly feel elation after winning her race? Hmmm. While the jury is still out on equine sporting events, the notion of animal competition among themselves is what the researchers studied and what led them to this breakthrough theory.

The researchers looked at what are known in the scientific world as “animal contests” which are “interactions between organisms when both are trying to use the same resource related to growth, reproduction, or survivability. Competition stems from the fact that resources are limited. There are simply not enough of some resources for all individuals to have equal access and supply.”

According to the paper published in The Royal Society Publishing, historically researchers in this area focused on how an animal placed value on a resource – water for example – as well as their opponent’s fighting ability. The latest theory posits that these assessments contribute to the animals’ emotional state and drive their behaviour. Their findings suggest that “just as depressed or anxious humans are more pessimistic about the future, animals that lose fights will be in a more negative emotional state, more pessimistic about whether they can win, and so are less willing to engage in future fights.”

We can surmise that this type of situation would apply to wild stallions, but perhaps also to horses kept at pasture who dominate others over shared hay bales. Who hasn’t noticed aggression on the part of certain herd members when feed buckets come by?

The study goes on to say that some events will cause an emotional response that will influence the animal’s decisions, including those with life-or-death consequences. The article gives the example of rustling leaves. An anxious animal would interpret the sound as a predator and run away. And such a reaction is “adaptive” when the anxiety is relevant, say, if previous rustling was caused by a predator on the hunt. But the mood is “maladaptive” if the reaction was caused by losing a fight.

While the study focused on such contests in the wild, the researchers put forth that “this emotion theory may underpin all non-reflexive behaviour in animals ‒ from signaling to mate choice and parental care. The authors suggest animal behavior researchers should start to look at and reflect on animal emotions in their work.

“Animal behavior researchers typically do not currently consider animal emotions in their work. However, the results of this study show that this may need to be considered as the role of animals’ emotion is crucial in relation to understanding their subsequent behavior,” Dr Gareth Arnott, senior lecturer from the School of Biological Sciences and principal investigator on the paper suggested. “Understanding these emotions also has practical benefits for the future of animal welfare. Good welfare requires animals to have few negative emotions and lots of opportunities for positive experiences. Understanding animal emotions and why they evolved will, therefore, help us to measure and improve animals’ emotional states and welfare.”