Sniffing Your Way to Better Hospital Experiences – Materials

9 - Emotional Triggers

Emotional Triggers

Have you ever smelled something that evoked a memory? A simple scent can have a host of complex meanings, memories and emotional ties for dogs and cats as scent is directly linked to both memory and emotion via the limbic system. When a dog or human inhales, scent molecules stimulate chemical messages that bypass other areas of the brain and go straight to the amygdala, the brain’s emotional center. The amygdala passes emotional judgments to other structures that collate memories and these are passed onto the cortex. Emotionally appropriate hormones are then released into the body, which also affect mood. Because a dog’s dominant sense is smell and so much of the brain is dedicated to processing scent, this is again strong evidence that dogs could be even more driven by their emotions than humans.

It is an undisputed fact that emotions drive behavior, drawing a dog or cat towards comfort and pleasure, or away from discomfort and pain. Behavior is influenced by physiological processes including the activity of neurotransmitters and hormones. Neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and dopamine, transmit chemical messages in the brains and bodies of dogs and humans and as a result both have the same physiological reactions to behavioral states such as joy, excitement, fear and pain. Dopamine, for example, helps to focus attention, promoting feelings of satisfaction. A lack of these neurotransmitters causes irritability, over reactivity, anxiety and greater sensitivity to pain. Serotonin has a profound affect over emotions and is responsible for regulating mood, enhancing a positive feeling and inhibiting aggressive response. (Landsberg, 1997) While the physical reaction may be similar across species, the way emotions are processed in the brain could potentially be where the emotional experience of species differ. Because human emotions flood through a cortex that is five times bigger than that of a dog it might mean that while a dog still has impressive cognitive abilities, processing emotion is simpler, unadulterated by a humans’ ability to analyze. Simply put, when a dog emotes, the feeling is very pure and not complicated by complex human thought.

(Landsberg, 1997) Landsberg G, Hunthausen W, Ackerman L 1997. Handbook of behaviour problems of the dog and cat. Butterworth Heinemann, pp 47-63.