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Do Animals Cry?

By S. Scolari
Updated May 21, 2024
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While animals do not cry in the way that humans do, they do produce tears. Since tear production, called lachrimation, is necessary for healthy eyes, most vertebrates are capable of producing tears.

Tears are produced in mammals by the lachrymal system, tissues which make water. In land mammals, tears evolved to replace the water bath that the eyes of aquatic animals and fish are constantly surrounded by. Tears serve to clean the cornea and keep it moist. When a speck of dirt, for example, is lodged in the eye, more tears are produced in order to wash away the irritant.

The fluid in tears is rich in nutrients and has anti-bacterial properties which help to fight infections. The salt in tears helps to create an osmotic balance within the eye.

In animals, it is virtually impossible to tell if their tears are the result of emotions or merely caused by eye irritation. Most scientists agree, however, that humans are the only animals who produce emotional tears.

While animals may not weep like humans, they do, however, emit cries which seem to indicate emotional distress. They're very sensitive to emotions, which makes some of them ideal as ESAs. Baby animals of all kinds will vocalize when separated from their mothers. Baby elephants in particular produce a very sad, keening sound which sounds like weeping. Hunters and some wildlife experts have claimed that the sound of a bear cub cries, when separated from its mother is remarkably similar to the cries of a human baby. In these cases, the cries probably serve as a form of direct communication with the mother.

There are many cases of animals exhibiting grief at the death of their owners. The famous Greyfriars Bobby, a small dog whose owner passed away, kept constant watch over the grave until his own death fourteen years later. A statue and fountain were later erected in honor of the faithful terrier. This is very common with service animals who refuse to leave their human's side. It's a clear proof of their loyalty and capacity to form a bond with another specie.

Ascribing "human" emotions to animals (anthropomorphism) is often derided but may have a factual basis. A poodle which has lost a canine companion may refuse to eat. Dolphins have been known to carry their dead babies with them for days. An elk may stand watch over the dead body of a calf until predators destroy it and geese mate for life. While it is virtually impossible for a human to know what animals are really thinking or feeling, these behaviors seem to indicate real emotions. This is further observed in psychiatric service dogs or cats who show great empathy and care towards their humans.  Perhaps this is why they make some of the most effective support animals, because they know empathy and can connect to human emotions.

Elephants, which are sensitive and highly intelligent animals with an evolved social structure, have been observed "crying." Charles Darwin was told by the keepers of Indian elephants at the London zoo that the animals shed tears from sorrow.

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Discussion Comments
By anon994669 — On Feb 27, 2016

Your comments about animal or human emotions (or any mental processes) are about 50 years behind the science. Physicists do not directly observe a photon, only its effects, from which its properties are inferred, and predictions made and tested. The same holds with respect to emotions and all mental processes in people or non-human animals. If predictions are repeatedly confirmed, with no disconfirming instances, the inferences are as justified as any others in science.

By anon994387 — On Feb 05, 2016

This is such a moot point. It doesn't matter whether animals can cry with sorrowful tears or not. They still feel emotions. Producing tears has nothing to do with emotion. If a human's tear ducts are damaged do you think they feel emotion less strongly?

The way people are talking on these comments suggest they think emotions are intrinsically linked to tears which is ridiculous and illogical.

Humans just happen to show their distress with tears (and not all of us do - I rarely cry and my eyes water for no reason often so the connection between my tears and my emotions is very weak). It doesn't mean their emotions are any stronger than any other animal's. If you think about it, tears are stupid and wasteful; you're wasting water and salt just to say "boo hoo I'm sad" when howling or whimpering would suffice.

Tears are just the way humans have evolved to show emotion. Animals have their own methods and feel emotions just as we do.

By anon969784 — On Sep 13, 2014

A smiley expression in a dog doesn't necessarily indicate happiness. If your dog's mouth is open just a tad, with the sides raised, he may indeed look like he's smiling, but he may actually be anxious, nervous or otherwise in distress.

A dog may also give the false impression of smiling in subordinate situations, according to the ASPCA. If a dog is threatened by another animal or human that he feels is higher in ranking, he may attempt to show his subordination by raising his lips in a non-aggressive display. It's a different baring of the teeth than an aggressive one, and the dogs know the difference. It has the appearance of a smile, but the poor pooch is scared.

By feasting — On Jan 22, 2013

My ten-week-old puppy cried for two hours when I left him with a friend. I'm glad that I didn't know this at the time I was going on vacation, or I would have turned around and came back!

I had just rescued him a week earlier. I had found him in the road, nearly starved to death.

I guess he associated me with safety, food, and water, because my friend said he acted like he'd lost his lifeline. He howled and howled, and I hate that he saw me driving away without him!

By healthy4life — On Jan 22, 2013

@OeKc05 – It probably does. I know that when my baby is crying for a bottle, I can't get the milk warmed up fast enough because it makes me so sad!

When you know that your little one is crying because he's hungry, it's particularly heartbreaking. I can tell his dirty diaper cry from his hunger cry.

By OeKc05 — On Jan 21, 2013

Baby birds cry for food. I've seen them in nests before, with their mouths wide open and looking toward the sky.

They make these cute little high-pitched sounds that are hard to hear unless you get really close to the nest. I have been able to find bird nests before because of these cries. Otherwise, I would have just walked right on by.

I wonder if the mother bird is stressed when she hears them. Even though she knows she is already on the hunt for food to satisfy them, I wonder if the crying makes her antsy.

By Kristee — On Jan 21, 2013

I've seen tears draining from a small dog's eyes before, but it wasn't because he was sad. A lot of small, fluffy dogs have a problem with eye leakage that stains their fur.

I do believe that animals feel emotion. I just think that the physical tears they shed are unrelated and are more of a physical issue.

By anon304980 — On Nov 23, 2012

Whether animals cry or not, they still have feelings and can feel pain just like humans. I arrived on this page after just watching extreme cruelty against a poor defenseless elephant by a circus owner caught on a hidden camera.

Anna the elephant is now in longleat zoo and I hope she recovers and enjoys the remainder of her years. It did not say what happened to the scumbag owner, apart from being charged with three counts of cruelty, but one thing I do know is that what goes around, comes around.

By anon299896 — On Oct 27, 2012

I think if animals, (even though we humans are technically animals) if they could cry, we would have so many more empathetic people towards them.

By anon258378 — On Apr 01, 2012

Animals do get sad. I remember going on a longish trip (about three weeks) and my cat was so excited/ happy when we came back. I know she was because we were in a room with strangers and she would normally never enter the room with them, but she did because we came back.

By anon233289 — On Dec 05, 2011

That's an intelligent question @anon2703. There is no complete answer at all!

By doglover139 — On Jun 29, 2011

My dad always said, "animals have real emotions, and whoever thinks otherwise is a retard." I love my dad.

By doglover139 — On Jun 29, 2011

I beg to differ. Just because they are a different species doesn't mean that animals do not share the typical human emotions that we do. I've seen my dog clearly smiling when he's had a good sleep, or when he's contented by the fire, lying on his side. Just because we don't see an animal crying, doesn't mean it doesn't happen.

We're animals too, aren't we, and doesn't that mean we share emotions and feelings with the rest of the animal kingdom? Just because we don't see Fido shed a tear when he leaves his mother, doesn't mean he won't. They could be embarrassed, as we are, in public, to cry, or particularly in household dogs they might not want to cry so as not to worry their owners.

I'm not saying the scientists are wrong, heck they know more than I will ever, but there are many perspectives of this particular problem.

By anon45447 — On Sep 16, 2009

Animals get sad, e.g., from loss of a kid by the mom. Chimps get sad, e.g., from loss of a mom. Humans with brain damage (specific type) will cry with less provocation (from the French, "they wear they heart on their sleeve"). Crying is more complex than you might think.

By anon15254 — On Jul 06, 2008

"Elephants, which are sensitive and highly intelligent animals with an evolved social structure, have been observed "crying." Charles Darwin was told by the keepers of Indian elephants at the London zoo that the animals shed tears from sorrow." The same has been observed in camels.

By anon2703 — On Jul 22, 2007

What are physiological, biochemical and enzymatic changes occurs during weeping in animals and human?

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