Do animals smile? Inquiring Kids Want to Know

With 67% of American households having pets and over 183 million visitors to US zoos and aquariums each year, there’s a heightened interest in whether or not animals feel emotions. This pursuit also guides animal activists, some say. It’s with this thinking that I wondered do animals smile?

Some animals smile (like gorillas and dogs) according to experts, whereas other animals may merely look like they’re smiling. As well animals don’t have to smile to show contentment; it’s been documented, for instance, that dolphins show enthusiasm by bopping their heads and squealing, not smiling.

As someone who’s had countless pets over the years and visited zoos across the US and Europe, I have approached this question with eagerness and attention. Below I’m happy to share my findings.

One way to build humor with your kids is to use it strategically through routines or regular activities. For instance, our Fun Jokes For Kids Coloring Book is a great tool for embedding humor through kid-friendly activity.

Are animals actually smiling?

Over the years as research has expanded, experts have come to agree that most animals not only feel emotion but also many animals smile. This isn’t to say that all experts agree about the same animals though. Let’s look at some prominent theories and ideals on animals smiling.

It’s been documented that some animals smile out of contentment and fulfillment. For example, research describes smiling dogs, gorillas, bear, and even horses as they interact playfully or accomplish a goal. Some also claim cats and birds smile, though research is lacking to corroborate it.

With the advent of smartphones and other video recording technology, many people enjoy taping their ‘smiling’ pets.

Let’s look at some specific research about animals smiling.

AnimalWhat does its ‘smile’ look like?
DogOpens its mouth, pulls back its lips, lets tongue lap over teeth or hang out (usually while wagging its tail)
CatCurls lips, tilts its head, and squints eyes (while purring)
GorillaOpens its mouth with a low hanging bottom lip but doesn’t display teeth (as a show of nonaggression)  
HorsePulls back corners of mouth, baring teeth, nodding head up and down
GiraffeCorners of mouth are pulled back, sometimes the mouth is open and tongue hangs out to the side; other times mouth is closed and their eyes sort of droop showing full lashes
ElephantAlthough their mouths from a side view can look like smiling, an elephant smiles by displaying a tail swinging from side to side, hooded eyes, and a trunk that softly touches and grazes
BearLike humans, bears pull the sides of their mouths up to smile
Table Describing How to Detect Smiling in Random Animals

Bears Smile

Else Poulsen (zookeeper and bear expert) wrote Smiling Bears : A Zookeeper Explores the Behavior and Emotional Life of Bears (available at Amazon). In it, Poulsen details the complexities of bears as a group, but also as distinct animals.

She explains that although bears, or any animal, shouldn’t be treated as if ‘human’, they have individual personalities, experiences, desires, and emotions, and yes, smile like humans do.

“The 20th century dogma that we must not anthropomorphize, or attribute human characteristics like emotions to animals, has moved several generations of humans farther away from understanding the creatures we share the planet with.” pg 4

Else Poulsen, author of Smiling Bears: A Zookeeper Explores the Behavior and Emotional Life of Bears

She also credits the trend over the years to treat animals like animals (and not humanize them) in the guise to protect them and honor their true nature as doing an unintentional disservice to animals. Poulsen says that by not recognizing their likenesses to humans, such as having feelings, emotions, and for some to even smile when they experience a pleasure, some animals have been inaccurately portrayed.

Horses Smile

A 2015 extensive study involving horses found that they have 17 unique facial expressions, and yes, smiling is one of them. This means that horses have more facial expressions than dogs and even chimpanzees!

“It [smiling] seems to be part of the submissive gesture,” with younger horses displaying the pulled back sides of the mouth gesture more often than older horses.

Jennifer Wathan, researcher/author of EquiFACS: The Equine Facial Action Coding System

Horses smile by pulling back their lips, opening their mouth wide, and tilting their head up and down. This is often accompanied by sounds too.

Anne Burrows, an acting professor at Duquesne University in Pennsylvania, contributed to the horse facial study as well, and she said this kind of research influences other thinking about animals. For instance, there’s more evidence to suggest domesticated animals use their expressions to intentionally communicate with humans.

Smiling Dolphins Aren’t Smiling

However, to be clear, there are animals that look like they’re smiling but aren’t and experts urge people to understand the difference. For example, dolphins are one such animal.

Dolphins anatomically look like they have a perpetual grin on their faces. It’s a beautiful illusion, but an illusion all the same. And this depiction and inference has been so pervasive that most kids think of dolphins as ‘nice’ and ‘sweet’ animals.

The misconception has proven dangerous to both people and dolphins.

As background, it’s important to recognize that dolphins are extremely smart animals, and that this also makes them very trainable. Successful training has facilitated dolphin entertainment parks (and movies), where dolphins perform cute tricks and families not only enjoy the show but also can participate with direct, behind-the-scenes interaction.

Well, just a cursory investigation online will lead to some gruesome tales of dolphins attacking people resulting in broken bones, bruises, and bites; and also of dolphins harming each other and going crazy due to being kept in too-small enclosures (and truly, most experts agree that any enclosure other than the wide-open ocean is too small for dolphins who can cover 40 miles a day swimming).

But research also tells us that the highly-intelligent dolphin is able to show contentment and ‘happiness’ too, only not with a facial smile. Rather evidence has shown that dolphins squeal, whistle, and bop their heads up and down rapidly when enthusiastic and excited.

Other articles about laughter that you may enjoy:

Do animals smile when happy?

Warner Brothers released an animated film in 2006 called Happy Feet (available at Amazon) about dancing, singing penguins.

So this leads to the related question, then, do animals smile when happy? I’d also venture to ask, do animals feel happiness?

Research agrees for the most part that most animals can feel happiness in terms of contentment and fulfillment. Only some animals express this with smiles; other animals may emote sounds or other bodily functions or gestures to demonstrate ‘happiness.’

Let’s recap some animals where research has verified facial smiling when happy, and some animals that have been said to express happiness in other ways.

Animals verified to smile when happy:

  • Gorillas and other primates
  • Dogs
  • Bears
  • Horses

Animals verified to show happiness via non-smiling means:

  • Dolphins
  • Elephants
  • Pigs
  • Sheep

Can animals laugh?

Now that we’ve address animals smiling, let’s look at another common question: can animals laugh?

Like with animals smiling, it’s well-documented that some animals can laugh. Some animals laugh (like humans do) out of emotions of happiness or an outward response to physical affection. Others laugh as a vocalization for excitement, stress, or even aggression, like with hyenas.

One of the first ideas about laughing came from renowned French philosopher Henri Bergson. Bergson wrote Laughter about, well, laughter, published in 1924 (translated copy available at Amazon). In his very comprehensive analysis, Bergson attributed it as ‘distinctly and uniquely a human quality’.

But then Pulitzer-prize winning, Austrian zoologist Konrad Lorenz wrote convincingly that dogs laugh while playing in his book, Man Meets Dog (published in 1949 and also available on Amazon). Lorenz details it vividly, describing a dog’s opened jaws, tilted mouth, and lolling dog tongue, followed by excited panting and yelps.

But even more recent research expands the list of animals laughing to 65 different species!

“This work lays out nicely how a phenomenon once thought to be particularly human turns out to be closely tied to behavior shared with [other] species,”

Dr. Gregory Bryant, UCLA professor/researcher

According to Bryant’s 2021 article in Bioacoustics, researchers have been able to identify animals that laugh out of play, from apes to birds to even rodents.

Gorillas Laugh

A baby gorilla laughs and plays with its caretaker at the gorilla sanctuary, Grace Center (Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education Center).

One of the cutest examples of laughing animals has to be the baby gorilla in a video that went viral, to no one’s surprise. It shows a baby gorilla giggling and laughing from being tickled by its handler in a gorilla sanctuary.

Another example of apes laughing is of western lowland gorillas. They make a quiet, panting chuckle when playing with other gorillas.

Research involving chimps’ laughter have led scientists to conclude chimps laugh spontaneously as well as responsively…much like humans.

Horses Laugh

The 2016 Volkswagen Tiguan commercial was a hit with its laughing horses.

Some people say horses laugh, too. From personal videos to commercials, we can find many examples of horses seemingly laughing. Visually it’s easy to see why it’s said, for horses are able to manipulate their facial muscles (as explained above) to mimic smiling and laughing from their eyes to their nostrils and lips.

They’re commonly seen sticking their noses out, opening their mouths wide and showing their teeth all while bobbing their heads up and down- a true visual of laughter if there ever is one!

Other animals identified as laughing when playing or content:

  • Rats
  • Squirrel monkeys
  • Australian magpies
  • Kea parrots

Laughing Hyenas Aren’t Laughing

On the flipside, however, there are some animals that emit laughing sounds but it’s agreed that these sounds aren’t exactly our definition of laughter. Hyenas are an example of this kind of animal.
Kevin Richardson, a hyena expert, hopes to educate the public about hyenas and change common negative perceptions about them.

Hyenas are known for making a laughing sound, and every hyena has a unique laughing sound. But hyenas make this noise out of stress, and even aggression. Their whoop, as it’s called by hyena experts, is not playful at all.

Do animals understand smiles from kids and adults?

Our daughter Lexi was able to get up close and personal with a ‘smiling’ giraffe at Zootastic Park of Lake Norman in North Carolina.

So it seems pretty clear that at least some animals smile; does this mean that animals can recognize smiles in humans? Can animals actually respond accordingly to a kid’s toothy grin?

Well, yes and no.

Experts agree that some animals can understand human smiling. For example, there is a lot of research detailing how dogs have learned to not only understand human smiles, but respond accordingly. Research also shows this ability in certain pigs, elephants, and dolphins.

One thing my husband and animal control officers alike routinely teach to kids about smiling and dogs is that not all situations are alike. Many dogs see shorter children as equivalent to other dogs. Smiling children around a dog’s food or in stressful environments could be seen as a sign of baring teeth and aggression.

Kids should be careful with open mouthed smiles around strange or stressed dogs.

Master Booe

A 2015 study which looked into the ability of domestic cats to read emotions was not so convincing, however. They tested cats’ response to owners as well as strangers demonstrating emotions without the use of vocal cues. Based on their findings, they concluded “Domestic cats were only modestly sensitive to emotion…”

Cat owners everywhere are not the least bit surprised! Although I must say it’s a bit comforting to know that maybe my fat cat wasn’t just ignoring me on purpose.

Smiling Animals Punchline

To summarize whether or not animals smile: yes, some do. Some animals smile out of contentment, fulfillment, or even submissive gesture.

Other animals smile for entirely different reasons such as aggression or just a natural state of being.

Besides smiling, there is documented evidence proving that some animals laugh, too- out of playfulness and ‘happiness.’ However, a few species, like the hyenas, are known for laughing sounds that are more due to stress.

For further reading about laughter, I suggest:

Additional resources:

APPA; AZA; WDC; LiveScience

Jackie Booe

A mother to four kids, grandmother ("Oma") to a growing number, a retired teacher for over 18 years, and a wife to Mat since 1994, Jackie knows kids and laughter. She holds a license to teach in 3 states and is certified to teach elementary, secondary English, and English Language Learners, with practical experience at all levels. She holds three degrees in the field of education and has taught education courses online at the university level as an adjunct professor, too. She has mentored numerous education interns, hosted professional development for educators, and tutored, in addition to homeschooling her own children.

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