Can Animals Have Trauma?

Can animals have trauma?

Questioning and understanding whether animals experience emotions and behavioral responses based on them is a question that has endured over time, generating scientific interest and research. As our understanding of emotional intelligence linked to the animal world expands, questions are arising about whether traumatic experiences have similar conditions as they do for humans.

Throughout history, we have observed complex behaviors and displays of emotions in animals that generate evidence of a rich inner life. We have witnessed their expressions of joy, sadness and fear; For example, your dog’s excitement when he realizes that you are going to take him for a walk, or your cat’s snort when you give him an unexpected scare. Can these emotions also express trauma?

Science has revealed that animals and humans share many similarities in terms of biology, emotions and behaviors. Therefore, in this article, we will review Current research focused on animal emotionality and their possibility of experiencing trauma to try to answer this question.

Animals and emotions

A trauma, in the human context, is defined as an overwhelming and long-lasting emotional response to a traumatic event, which has a significant emotional impact on the person. These events may be situations of extreme danger, abuse, or significant loss. The experience of trauma can leave emotional and psychological consequences on people, affecting their long-term well-being.

For a long time, the predominant perception in relation to animals focused on considering them purely instinctive beings, lacking complex emotions. However, in recent decades, science has debunked this myth and shown that Animals have richer and more varied emotional capacities than we used to think. Research in animal etiology and psychology has revealed that numerous species, from mammals to birds and some invertebrates, are capable of feeling basic emotions such as fear, joy, sadness and anxiety, which are essential for their survival and adaptation to their environment.

Fear is fundamental

Fear is one of the emotions that has been characterized as crucial for the survival of most species. Before imminent threats, Animals experience fear, which allows them to activate the “fight or flight” response to protect themselves. This response, as the name indicates, will determine whether the animals develop fear-coping or avoidance behavior to get to safety. Similarly, joy is manifested in your behavior when finding food, establishing social ties, or experiencing comfort with your environment.

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Mammals, the most emotional

Mammals, in particular, have been the subject of greater scrutiny when it comes to their emotions, mainly due to their greater similarity to humans than animals belonging to other or familiar kingdoms. Elephants, for example, are known for their strong sense of family and the grief experienced after the death of a member of the herd.

Traumas in animals

Dogs, which have been closely linked to humans for thousands of years, are considered experts in understanding our emotions and providing empathetic responses based on them.

emotional behaviors

In addition to considering these dog responses as empathetic, animal research has also developed studies to evaluate their emotional capacities. A very prominent example is the work done with non-human primates, such as chimpanzees and bonobos. These studies have shown the existence of human-like emotional behaviors in situations involving empathy, compassion, and, in some cases, even feelings of guilt.

Trauma in nature

The animal kingdom is an environment of constant interaction with its environment and other members of both its species and different ones. In nature, animals are exposed to very diverse challenges and threats that can lead to potentially traumatic experiences, at least understood from the human eye and perspective. While these experiences can vary widely between environments and animal species, Some common situations can be stressful and have a lasting impact on your emotional well-being.

1. Predation and survival

Natural predators are an essential part of the ecosystem and play a role in controlling prey populations. However, being chased or attacked by a predator can be a terrifying experience for the prey animal. Although some animals may successfully escape, others may suffer serious physical and emotional injuries as a result of the encounter.

2. Loss of offspring or companions

Family and social bonds are common in many animal species. The loss of a calf or a companion It can be emotionally devastating for an individual and can affect their behavior and well-being in the long term.

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3. Changes in habitat or territory

Deforestation, urbanization and other environmental changes can lead to the loss of natural habitats and competition for territory and resources. These events can lead to conflicts and stressful situations for affected animals.

4. Human intervention

Direct interaction with humans, whether through hunting, animal trafficking, or destruction of their environments, can also cause trauma to animals. Poaching and capturing animals for illegal trade pets are examples of activities that can cause great stress and emotional damage.

Scientific studies of animal trauma

We come to the main question of the article and the review of scientific studies focused on whether animals experience trauma and on understanding the behaviors and emotional responses of different species.

Obviously, it is not possible to carry out studies based on verbal testimonies with animals, but science uses different methodologies and observations to address this issue. One of the most relevant fields of study is etiology, focused on animal behavior. By systematically observing and analyzing behaviors in natural and captive environments, ethologists have been able to identify signs of trauma in animals.

Etiology studies

In studies focused primarily on non-human primates, behavioral responses suggesting the presence of stress and distress following traumatic events, such as forced separation from their social groups or exposure to threatening situations, have been documented. Elephants, known for their strong sense of community, have also shown signs of grief and distress when they are separated from their loved ones, as mentioned before. This reveals the existence of emotional responses similar to what we consider human trauma.

Laboratory studies

In addition to field observations, laboratory studies have been carried out using experimental models to evaluate the reaction of animals to stressful situations. These experiments have revealed neurobiological and hormonal changes in animals subjected to chronic stress indicating that they may experience emotions similar to the stress responses observed in humans.

These laboratory studies are relevant because they are used to study different psychopathologies in animals instead of directly with humans. This scientific decision, despite being based on research ethics and non-human experimentation, demonstrates that the emotional responses of animals and humans are significantly similar, since animal experiments make it easier to reach conclusions applicable to humans.

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Traumatic memory studies

An emerging area of ​​research is the study of traumatic memory in animals. Traumatic memories can affect the way animals interact with their environment and with other members of their species. Some studies have shown that animals such as mice and rats can develop avoidance responses after experiencing stressful events in certain contexts.

Ethical debate

Recognition of the possibility that animals may experience trauma raises important ethical considerations. If we accept that animals can have complex emotional experiences, including traumatic responses, the responsibility arises to protect their well-being and avoid actions that cause them unnecessary harm. This ethical debate extends to various areas, such as the use of animals in scientific research, the food industry, raising animals for entertainment and tourism, and the destruction of natural habitats. Discussions about sport hunting, the trade in endangered species, and the treatment of animals in zoos and aquariums are also influenced by this deeper understanding of their emotional capacity.

As awareness of animal welfare grows in society, so does the need to consider the ethical implications of our actions towards animals. Laws and policies related to the treatment of animals have evolved in many countries to reflect greater consideration of their emotional and physical needs.


Understanding and understanding more deeply whether animals experience trauma is fertile ground for research and reflection. Although we cannot access animal minds to know for sure what they feel, science has allowed us to understand their emotional reactions and responses to traumatic situations.

It is essential that, as a society, we move away from the reductionist view of animals as merely instinctive beings and adopt a more informed and compassionate perspective. Considering the emotional well-being of animals not only enriches our understanding of the natural world, but also allows us to advocate for more ethical and sustainable practices in our interactions with them.

We have a responsibility to ensure that our actions and decisions promote an environment in which all living things can thrive and live without unnecessary suffering. By delving deeper into the study of animal emotions, we approach a more harmonious and respectful coexistence with all our potential life partners.