Are Animals Altruistic?

Animals are often credited with behaving in purposeful ways that result in saving their owners’ lives.  While we would never deny the close attachments people develop with their pets – we are head over heels in love with our Irish setter Coral and have and would do anything to keep her safe (but those are several other stories worth telling) – as animal behaviorists we are always careful not jump to conclusions about the motivation for the behavior of animals. 

We’ve written previously in this blog about “Oscar” the cat who supposedly could predict which patients in a long term care facility were about to die.  More recently we were asked to comment on the behavior of a horse that supposedly saved its owner from burning to death during the Australian wildfires of 2009. 

The owner credited his horse with purposefully tossing him over a rail and pointing him down a bank to a creek where he huddled for several hours as the fires burned around him.  The horse ran off, but survived, and was at home when the owner returned.  

A closer look reveals that as owner and horse were walking down the road attempting to find a way out, the owner shortened the rope and tried to draw the horse closer to him.  The horse panicked, reared up, and in the “wrestling match” that followed the owner was knocked over the rail toward the creek.  Because this interpretation adequately explains the sequence of events, there’s no reason to add a layer of explanation beyond this.  That’s an example of parsimony – seeking the simplest explanation that accounts for the behavior. 

It may very well be, as the news story suggests, that this owner and horse had a close attachment to one another.  It is comforting to all of us pet owners to think that our pets care about our well being and would put our safety before their own. 

(On the other hand, we would never want our dogs to confront someone breaking into our house.  We’d rather the intruder steal everything we own than have our dogs harmed protecting our possessions.)

Even given those close attachments, it’s often quite a stretch in these situations to accept the complex thinking required on the animal’s part to purposefully save a life.  Would the horse really say to himself

“We are in a real pickle here.  We’re about to burn up!  I need to get Dad to safety.  Fire is burning all around – what about that creek that’s down the hill?  If he’s wet, he won’t burn.  I’ll just knock him over the side and hope he can take it from there.  BTW, I’m not going in the creek where it’s safe, I’m running off into the woods toward the fire”.       

Sounds pretty fantasy-world doesn’t it?  Even if an animal’s behavior is self-serving, or isn’t as altruistic as we would like to believe, that takes nothing away from the bond we have with them and how much we love them.

If you want to know about your pet's behavior from a scientific viewpoint, we have a wide selection of audio and video programs on our Animal Behavior Associates site.  AND –  what we have to say is –  an impressive array of ON DEMAND online courses on topics from helping cats and dogs get along to assessing aggression.

From September- December of 2010 members of our are receiving TWO Member only educational events each month.  So if you want to get educated about pet behavior – JOIN US!


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