Jealousy Is Primordial and Your Dog Feels It, Scientists Prove

What's green with envy and furry all over? Your dog may feel jealousy, but he doesn't necessary experience it as you do, notes a Tel Aviv behaviorist.

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
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This Shih-Tzu is a therapy dog, helping hospital patients in Maryland. But can you tell how's she feeling under all that fur?
This Shih-Tzu is a therapy dog, helping hospital patients in Maryland. But can you tell how's she feeling under all that fur?Credit: Reuters
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

Do animals have souls? If feelings of love and yearning, frustration and anger, and the ability to trust are any criteria – then yes, they do, any pet owner will say. Scientists, however, used to say they could hypothesize that Fido feels love, but couldn’t prove it. Now, however, science has proven that dogs indeed suffer from the agonies of jealousy, a state of mind previously thought too complex for simple-minded beasts.

Dog owners always figured Fido got jealous: There are any number of books and articles on the things canines resent. But that’s layman’s stuff. Now two scientists from California say they’ve empirically proved that jealousy – which may have evolved to shield social bonds from interlopers – surges in dogs too.

The key lies in interpreting similar behavior exhibited by dogs and human babies as conveying the same emotion – in this case, jealousy.

Canines form social groups in which status is crucial, explain Christine Harris and Caroline Prouvost of the University of California, San Diego. That provides fertile ground for jealousy to evolve.

They tested this by having owners of 36 dogs display affection toward a stuffed toy dog (using nonsocial objects, such as a pail, as controls). The subject-dogs became agitated – for instance, pushing between the owner and the vile object, getting aggressive or begging for attention – when the stuffed dog was involved, say the scientists in an article appearing in Plos One. They couldn’t have cared less about the pail. The scientists’ conclusion: Jealousy preceded the advent of mankind in evolution. It’s a phylogenetically ancient, primordial condition.

“Jealousy could exist in many animals. Functionally, it makes sense,” says Dr. Arnon Lotem, an expert on animal behavior at Tel Aviv University.

We know when a baby wants something, or when a dog or cat or gerbil does: They all exhibit much the same behavior, and therefore we interpret each as “wanting.” But what they are actually feeling or thinking is something else; we can’t know this in any of those cases. It’s surely not the same as when adults, with their vastly greater layers of experience and complexity, want something.

“When speaking of jealousy, do animals feel the same thing, experience it like people? It’s hard to say,” says Lotem. “The fact is that competition over resources is very basic.”

It could also be that jealous animals are carrying over a trait from their infancy, when it "paid" – evolutionarily speaking – to be envious of their mother’s attention to litter-mates. According to some schools of thought, house pets are animals whose infancy (and dependence) has been extended into their physiological adulthood, Lotem points out. Potentially, jealousy could have originated at birth – and gotten "stuck" in an infantilized stage.

Also, people tend to anthropomorphize, says Lotem. True that. However, “a lot of the behaviors we ascribe to ourselves as humans turn out to exist in the animal world. The more time passes, the more we discover that characteristics we ascribe to human exist in animals,” adds Dr. Ron Elazari of Tel Aviv University, an expert on animal behavior.

Feline feelings

Animal behavior purists distinguish between the frustration caused by “inequality aversion” and simple jealousy. But as Lotem points out, there’s no way to prove that Fido and your kid experience jealousy the same way unless somebody maps their brains in action when reacting to the same annoying stimuli. And that is not about to happen. In any event, the argument wouldn’t die away: “Is the red you see like the red I see?” Lotem asks, to drive home the point.

Moreover, as to the suggestion that living in packs contributes to jealousy ־ maybe so, but maybe not. Cat owners may insist that their pets may get jealous in social-triangle situations, though in contrast to the dog study, here the evidence is anecdotal, and harder to pin down, if only because cats are so inconsistent. It’s also hard to work out what’s jealousy and what’s sheer preciousness.

Seemingly unlike dogs, in this case, the object of ire need not be another cat: A newspaper, a lover or a shoe will do. If your kitty wants attention and your attention is otherwise occupied, he will take action, pushing himself between you and the book, for example. Or sitting on your keyboard. There’s even software that can tell when there’s a cat on your keyboard and can block Mittens’ "commands" to the computer.

By definition jealousy involves a third party that threatens an important relationship, say Harris and Prouvost. So maybe thinking your cat is envious of that magazine in your hands is a stretch. Maybe Mittens is just bored and peeved at your bizarre failure to entertain her. But sometimes it sure feels like a case of the green-eyed monster.

“When I brought home a lover for the first time, Lychee became extremely hostile,” says Rubi L., referring to his fixed female tabby, who hadn’t exactly been affable to begin with. “When we’d go to sleep she’d get between us, bracing her back on me and trying to push my girlfriend out of bed with her feet.” It didn’t work, with the girlfriend weighing about 60 kilos and Lychee weighing perhaps five, but the animal tried. The relationship went south, Rubi says. With the girlfriend, that is.

Dumb animals? Not quite

Let’s first eliminate the postulation that jealousy can’t exist in animals because they’re too stupid, or socially simple. In July, psychologist Arii Watanabe reported in Animal Cognition on meta-cognition in scrub jays – yes, birds, from which the expression “birdbrain” originates. That may turn out to be an unintended compliment.

Meta-cognition means “the ability to identify the state of your knowledge,” or to think about thinking, Watanabe says. Scrub jays were proven not only to remember the past and hoard food for the future: They were actively planning, he says. And never mind mazes: Rats have been known for decades to communicate and cooperate for the greater good of the clique.

Dumb beasts? Only as far as their tongue is concerned. It’s a small leap to conclude that at least some animals have the physiological capacity to develop jealousy, too. It’s hard-wired, as in human babies, too – that urge “to break up a potentially threatening liaison and protect the primary relationship,” the scientists write.

The dog study relies in no small part on theories of jealousy in infants, who have been seen to display that feeling at ages as young as six months, when their mothers showed affection for a doll, which symbolized a rival. But again, Lotem cautions that jealousy is a highly complex emotion and what a six-month infant feels won’t be what a six-year old feels, let alone an adult.

Unlike cats, babies don’t seem to be bothered when Mama is reading, by the way, lending credence to that “preciousness” theory. Neither do dogs, incidentally: Their demonstrations of jealousy are confined to triangular social situations, where their status as No. 1 seems to be under threat.

Having established that canines can indeed be jealous, thanks to scientific tests involving 36 dogs and owners who did something to evoke that feeling – what can you do about it when introducing a third party into your relationship, be it another dog, a lover, a baby or a roommate?

The answer lies in an ounce of prevention, insofar as possible. If you’re bringing a new pet home, for example, introduce your dog to its scent first – bring it a blanket that the new dog lay on, for instance. Then introduce the two in a neutral territory, like the park. And once you bring the new one home, be careful to treat the two equally. Don’t give one treats while not giving to the other: Inequality over time can lead to despair in the slighted dog. And try to get them to play together, by throwing sticks and other objects. Not just one stick. Think how you’d react to that.

Cats with guns.Credit: From Twutter

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