Your pet may not be much of a conversationalist, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t communicating. People and pets are actually pretty good at reading each other’s body language — we all know what that frantically wagging tail means when we get home. But some emotions are harder to interpret, and may not have clear external signs. Purina Scientist Dr. Regan McGowan uses thermal imaging techniques to detect changes in a pet’s emotional state based on the amount of heat she is giving off. Knowing how to find out what’s going on inside our pets may help us accommodate their needs better, and improve their overall wellbeing.
The heat of certain parts of the body increases during excited emotional states. As Dr. McGowan explains, “In these images, we are looking for changes in the temperature of the paw pads and the eyes. For these particular images. you can visually see the change. For others we rely on the software to analyze the image to detect the changes.”
Thermal imaging is helping us learn more about the physiology of our pets’ emotions. But there’s much more to learn, and it’s hard to make generalizations because each pet has an individual heat-print. “The tricky thing,” says Dr. McGowan, about “reading the thermal images is that it is always necessary to compare individual pets in different circumstances.” If you don’t know the baseline heat signals of a particular dog, you can’t say whether their temperature at any given moment is higher or lower than normal.
There may be a good evolutionary reason we have trouble reading the full range of our pets’ moods. In the wild, displaying certain emotions like fear or calmness can make animals vulnerable to predators and competitors, so it makes sense that pets aren’t hardwired to advertise all of their feelings.
Dr. McGowan’s work is allowing us to actually see emotional changes where once we were only able to speculate. As we learn more about how pets express their emotions, we can develop new ways to reduce anxiety, detect illness and be better caretakers.