Do Octopuses Have Emotions?

Researchers explore moral and ethical dilemmas of recognizing animal feelings.

octopus swimming

TheSP4N1SH / Getty Images

Not only do octopuses have eight arms, they also have nine brains. To go along with all that gray matter, researchers were curious whether these smart creatures and other invertebrates have emotions.

Whether octopuses, squids, and crabs are sentient beings is the subject of ongoing research in animal emotions. The United Kingdom is considering amending animal rights legislation to recognize that these invertebrates can feel pain.

Kristin Andrews, philosophy professor at York University in Toronto, is involved in ongoing research on the subject. She recently co-wrote an article published in the journal Science on “The question of animal emotions.”

“The philosophical problem of other minds is one that we don’t really solve, but decide how to manage. We think that, at this point, the best way to manage the problem of other minds when it comes to other animals is to accept animal feelings and emotions,” Andrews tells Treehugger. 

Andrews points out that there is quite a lot of research on animal emotions. Early on, these studies primarily focused on monkeys and chimpanzees, but studies have begun to focus on other animals.

“Some of this work is with familiar mammals—such as dogs who are in many cases members of the family with clear emotional needs. But other research examines feelings in animals we’re less likely to have a friendly relationship with, such as insects, fish, crabs, worms, and octopuses.”

With all this research, Andrews says it’s time to change perceptions and accept that animals—including bees, worms, and octopuses—have emotions.

“This isn’t to say that humans and octopuses share the same emotions—octopus emotion might be as different from human emotion as octopus locomotion is different from human locomotion,” she says. “But it’s only after we accept that octopuses and other animals have emotions that we can begin to uncover the kinds of emotions they have.”

Animal Emotions and the Law

Animal sentience is the ability of animals to experience feelings including pain, pleasure, joy, and fear. Sentience is key in animal welfare legislations in places such as Europe, the U.K., Canada, and Australia.

The Animal Welfare and Safety Act in Quebec, for example, recognizes that “animals are sentient beings that have biological needs” and protects the care and safety of animals.

“However, definitions of ‘animal’ differ though,” Andrews says. “Often ‘animal’ refers to ‘nonhuman vertebrate.’ That definition excludes huge limbs of the animal tree, including octopuses, crabs, and insects. In the U.S. rats and mice are not counted as animals either, and not covered under the Animal Welfare Act.”

Currently in the U.K., the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill is undergoing its third reading in the House of Commons. If it passes, it would recognize decapod crustaceans and cephalopod mollusks as deserving of protection. Boiling them live would be banned.

Decapod crustaceans include shrimp, lobsters, crayfish, and hermit crabs. Cephalopod mollusks include octopuses, squids, and cuttlefish.

Sentience, Morality, and Ethics

Andrews has been working on a research project called Animals and Moral Practice. She says that much of the research in the field has been focused on painful emotions, stress, and suffering due to infant trauma when animals are separated from their mothers. Much less is known about positive emotions of happiness and joy, though work with laughing rats has suggested animal joy is an area worth exploring.

When society recognizes animal sentience, Andrews suggests this creates a moral and ethical dilemma. Unlike humans, animals can’t describe what they’re feeling.

“By recognizing animals have emotion, we are accepting that animals can feel things that matter to them. A mother cow might not want to be separated from her calf, and she may suffer more because she can’t seek comfort. A rat who is caught in a tube feels stressed, and that might make the other rats in the environment stressed as well,” Andrews says.

“Animals having feelings that matter to them creates moral obligations for humans, because to be good people, we have to think about others’ interests. We try not to make things worse for others, and often times we try to make things better for them. Moral struggles abound where there are conflicts of interest, as there often are between humans and other animals. We don’t offer a solution to these conflicts, but bring light to them, and suggest that the best answers will come when scientists and philosophers work together.”

View Article Sources
  1. "Octopuses Keep Surprising Us - Here are Eight Examples How." Natural History Museum.

  2. "Lobsters, Octopus and Crabs Recognised as Sentient Beings." GOV.UK.

  3. de Waal, Frans B. M., and Kristin Andrews. "The Question of Animal Emotions." Science, vol. 375, no. 6587, 2022, pp. 1351-1352., doi:10.1126/science.abo2378

  4. Kristin Andrews, philosophy professor at York University in Toronto

  5. Proctor, Helen, et al. "Searching for Animal Sentience: A Systematic Review of the Scientific Literature." Animals, vol. 3, no. 3, 2013, pp. 882-906., doi:10.3390/ani3030882

  6. "United Kingdom: New Bill Strengthens Animal Protection, Recognizes Animals as Sentient Beings." Library of Congress, 2017.

  7. "Animal Welfare and Safety Act." Légis Québec.

  8. "Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill." UK Parliament.

  9. "Decapod." Britannica.

  10. "Mollusca." Berkeley.