What do animals think?

do animals feel

For many years now, when things go wrong in my life — e.g., losing a home, losing good friends, losing a job, being criticized, etc., that kind of thing — my first port of call is usually to cherish whoever happens to be right around me. I don’t want to fall into self-pity or depression given my great good fortune to have this precious human life. I don’t trust any unhappy minds because I know they are reflecting a distorted reality. And I know that all this dream-like appearance comes from the ignorance of self-grasping and self-cherishing, every bit of it. So, in meditation I tend to meditate on emptiness to dissolve away self-grasping’s deceptions, and in the field I apply the immediate antidote to self-cherishing, which is to cherish someone near me more than I cherish myself.

This has always worked. Even if I feel a bit discombobulated first thing in the morning when I wake up to my new reality, it doesn’t matter, and it doesn’t last, because, if I’m focusing on someone else, my own dark cloud moods are not so important and they quickly lift.

do animals think according to Buddhism
Rihanna and Oscar

This Survive and Advance Strategy may be why, after one of life’s hiccups, I now seem to be fostering three kittens aged 5 weeks, weight approx. 1lb.* On Saturday, I went on the spur of the moment to volunteer with adoptions in PetSmart, as it felt like the right thing to do at the time. It was a quiet day, so after chief volunteer Jack had showed me the ropes, I swung back home by the Suncoast Animal League HQ just to have a look, and ended up coming home with Rihanna, Oscar, and Sidney.

do animals think according to Buddha

As I write this, they are wrestling each other and me on the sofa in an absurdly photogenic way, adding extra spaces to this document by jumping on the keyboard, and attempting to electrocute themselves by chewing through the wire. After three days, they think I am their mom. (Pretty brave and trusting, seeing as I’m a giant and don’t look much like a cat.) Their actual furry mom was hit by a car when she was pregnant. Happily she survived, had surgery on her jaw, and is now adopted.

(Now, by the end of this short paragraph, they have fallen over asleep – it is as if they have an on/off switch.)

do cats have delusions such as jealousy
Unimpressed Rousseau

One interesting thing about fostering so far (apart from the number of people trying to make me nervous with their “Oh, I adopted Hannah/Daisy/my four dogs and six cats X number of years ago, I’m a foster failure” stories), is that my own cat Rousseau is very jealous. He hisses, growls, and swats at them, and although the kittens themselves are unfazed (do they not realize he is 13 times their size?!), I am not, so I now keep them in a separate room while Rousseau is in the house, and the Russian tenants are (more than) happy to have them at night. Rousseau arrived here insecure and bitey, and it’s taken months for him to really feel at home and in charge, so this is not nice for him. I won’t feel mothering guilt though, there is infinite love to go around, something that a jealous cat doesn’t understand but, according to the online experts, there are ways to help him see that. I’m trying them all.

So, why is this interesting? Because Rousseau’s jealousy is no different to mine, or yours, or anyone else’s. It comes from the same place – insecurity; feeling unloved or deprived as a child perhaps; wanting to be in control of an uncontrollable environment, including the amount of love coming his way; attachment to his human; dislike of his perceived rivals … In other words, Rousseau is having a delusion. Who has delusions? A person has delusions. Ergo, Rousseau is, like you and me, also a person, a being, a self, an I (all synonyms according to Buddhism). “I, Rousseau, am very cross with these others, these intruders, and am going to take it out on you by sulking, hissing, swatting, and glaring at you with huge scary dilated-pupil eyes in the middle of the night, that is if I deign to look at you at all.” “I am a sentient being, I feel these things deeply, and am scared of these new people (I don’t let their miniature size deceive me!)” “I, myself, am feeling all lonely and insecure over here because it looks like she prefers other people now (and I don’t let her extra attention deceive me either!)”

Rousseau is clearly thinking something… to develop a delusion he has to have inappropriate attention, exaggerating something, and that is a process of thought. Animals think. Animals feel. Animals have thoughts and emotions. It is hard to insist that they don’t, though plenty of people try.

do animals feel

It matters not a jot that his delusion may be less sophisticated than a human being’s delusion – but as I write this, I find I am hard put to think of which ways in which it is less sophisticated. His growling and swatting at me is no different to a friend, lover, or child being upset and yelling at me if I spend time with someone else. His dislike of and rivalry with the kittens is the same motivating force behind an astonishing amount of dubious human behavior. His love of giving and receiving love, and his craving for attention and validation, is an emotional drive for most of us. And so on. Really, what is the difference? If you can think of any differences, please share them in the comments. I’m serious. I’m not sure if delusions are ever very sophisticated, even though they can certainly be elaborate. After all, they are all based on a gut ignorance.

kittens in Buddhism
Daka and Kini, off to their home in NY

So, if Rousseau is a person etc., so is every other animal by logical extension. And people deserve our love, protection, and respect. Here is what my favorite Christian saint has to say on the subject:

“Not to hurt our humble brethren is our first duty to them, but to stop there is not enough. We have a higher mission—to be of service to them wherever they require it.” ~ Saint Francis of Assissi

animals are sentient beings
Alex still needs a home

The other learning reinforcement I’ve had so far from these kittens is no surprise to me–that unconditional, in the moment love is the best antidote to pretty much anything unpleasant arising in the mind. They are distracting me in a positive way from thinking sad, futile, or fast-forwarding thoughts, indeed from thinking many thoughts at all 🙂 Except for good ones, like how much I want to make sure that I help them get a good forever home by loving them to bits and socializing them so they turn out secure and friendly (giving them a better start in life than Rousseau had, for example). And except especially for Dharma thoughts because my main wish–as it is for any pets I have, and any human beings I have too in fact–is that they are protected from all suffering not just in this life but always. When they look at me for love and protection, I find it unacceptable for them to remain in the deluded prison of samsara forever, endlessly experiencing wretched animal and other sufferings, and I am further motivated to do something about that by getting myself and them out of here. And they are also so kind to me, serving as immediate, visceral examples of all other animal beings, human beings, and other samsaric beings requiring swift release.

* I wrote this a few months ago and, since then, a lot of water has flown under the bridge, kitten-

do cats think
Do you want Danny?

wise and Dharma-wise. Two more joined the first three, all five got loving homes, and a friend in New York just this morning adopted two of my latest batch of five – they are flying out this weekend, Hurricane Isaac permitting.

(This article, of course, has just been one long glorified excuse to post some of my kitten pictures…)

Over to you: Do animals think? How do you know for sure?

Postscript: Someone just sent me this encouraging new article Prominent scientists sign declaration that animals have conscious awareness, just like us. An extract:

An international group of prominent scientists has signed The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness in which they are proclaiming their support for the idea that animals are conscious and aware to the degree that humans are — a list of animals that includes all mammals, birds, and even the octopus.

And, several years later, March 2016, this has happened in New Zealand!!!


Author: Luna Kadampa

Based on 40 years' experience, I write about applying meditation and modern Buddhism to improve and transform our everyday lives and societies. I try to make it accessible to everyone anywhere who wants more inner peace and profound tools to help our world, not just Buddhists. Do make comments any time and I'll write you back!

10 thoughts on “What do animals think?”

  1. Dearest Luna your method to transform “woe is me” feelings is valuable. For the last two years I’ve been deeply challenged by my own compromised health and that of the man I love. I have two 14 yr. old sibling cats with very different personalities. One rather high strung and the other a bit more blissfully oblivious. I recently discovered my LDL (bad) cholesterol level is rather high for the first time in my vegetarian life and I attribute it to stress. Low and behold the cats had their annual check up recently and the high strung kitty also has very elevated triglycerides and the laid-back kitty is fine. I think the more easily distressed kitty has been effected by my stress, sadly. It’s been hard for me to “always rely on a happy mind” when I navigate my own life threatening disease while feeling my heart break, watching my beloved partner (gracefully) suffer his slow, painful decline toward his death made only slightly bearable by the pain narcotics provided by Hospice care. I try to divert my despair into compassion for all those who suffer – Om mane padme hum – and I hang on by a thread.

    1. Dear C of S, I was just reading Modern Buddhism (which is free as an ebook) and thought of you — see pages 93-96, the practice of taking out of compassion.

  2. The more time you spend with animals, the more obvious their capacity to think and feel is. I’m typing this cross-legged; with the keyboard resting on a furby, who’s dozing on my lap; because he’s scared of my neighbour hoovering upstairs, and this feels safer to him. OK, so his reasoning may be a bit awry (based on the mistaken belief that hoovers are dangerous); but he’s definitely weighed up the alternatives and reasoned that being a furry desk is preferable to being anywhere else. And for him, that’s a logical conclusion 🙂

  3. I don’t know if animals actually have thoughts but they certainly have emotions. They can also make associations between pleasent and unpleasent events and people. Though I don’t really understand how some dogs who are neglected by their owners continue to love them.
    There are so many examples of animals of different species manifesting compassion for each other as well. We should be more like this in our relations with others and try to cherish them as our kind mother.

  4. I love this article,Luna.It reminds me to take my mind away from myself and the real benefits of cherishing others.Cherishing others is a win-win situation,everybody’s happy!As far as im concerned,kitten care is much better than having a TV:more entertaining and rewarding on every level.I wish you joy with your ever expanding family and thank you so much for your teaching.

  5. Very nice to read you. I love your two-prong strategy (emptiness and cherishing others). When we were growing up, my cat was in heat and went out at night. After her howling on somebody’s terrace, she was drop-kicked. Three days later she found her way back home with broken ribs and pelvis. We took her to the vet and she eventually physically recovered, but she spend the rest of her life in a heating duct avoiding contact with people. Yes, they think and feel, no doubt. One final thing, I once had a very clear and vidid dream where it was revealed to me that St. Francis of Assisi was, in fact, an emanation of Dorje Shugden.

    1. @ KR – That’s awful! Wee soul :'( But still fortunate to have you there as a loving friend when you were little, and now as a protector that you are bigger ~ wherever she is.

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