We know our dogs have feelings, and we’ve all caught our pet looking particularly forlorn, wearing a plaintive stare and glassy eyes. What else to think, but our dog is crying! Is she really, though? Do dogs cry like we do?
While dogs can feel sadness and grief, they don’t actually cry in the same way humans do. In other words, their sad feelings don’t prompt a flow of tears. Humans, in fact, are the only animals on the planet to shed tears as a result of their emotional state.
But we can unpack this larger question into several others. Can dogs shed tears at all? Do dogs cry in some other way? And if they can’t cry, are we imagining other dog emotions?
Dogs do have tear ducts, of course. These function to keep the eyes comfortable and clear of debris, and they drain back into the nasal cavity rather than dripping from the eye. This means something may be amiss if your dog is leaking tears. In dogs, tears could be caused by:
- a developing eye infection
- a blocked tear duct (also known as epiphora)
- damage to the surface of the eye
If you notice your dog’s eyes watering, take a closer look to make sure there’s nothing on the surface of the eye. If the “crying” or leaking continues over a period of days, be sure to check with your vet.
Even though dogs don’t cry (according to our definition), they do express more painful reactions in noticeable ways. They learn as puppies, just as human babies do, to cry out in order to receive nourishment, comfort, and safety. Puppies will vocalise when play becomes too rough or call out to their mothers when they’re feeling hungry, cold, or lonely.
Beyond puppyhood, dogs will whine or whimper when they feel separated from their owners or fellow canine companions. (Or when they desperately want a treat!)
It’s tricky to draw a one-to-one comparison between dog and human emotions, however. Humans are, of course, more nuanced in our emotional and psychological composition. While dogs can feel a range of emotions, they’re usually reacting to their surroundings and impulses, rather than experiencing strong bursts of feeling. We have to remember that dogs learn to adjust their behaviour in order to suit their needs, so some expressions that appear emotional can in fact be “manipulative,” in a rather innocent way.
That’s not to say our dogs are constantly playing tricks on us; it’s just another reminder that we can never be 100 percent certain of what our dogs are feeling. Even so, we can usually decipher their messages and respond. This is the primary source of our bond with the canine species, one that’s undoubtedly emotional. We thrive in response to their joy, attention, and affection. And they thrive in ours.
We also know that dogs will make unusual and distinct vocalisations if they see their owners have been physically injured in some way. This tells us that dogs not only express strain or emotional ache, but they also have the capacity for empathy of some kind.
And here we go again—projecting our psychological world onto theirs!
Whether dogs truly feel compassion, as humans understand it, is indeed another question. Whatever the answer may be, their ability to read our distress and provide comfort is one key reason they’ve won us over completely.