Do Animals Laugh?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

A dog, a chimpanzee and a rat walk into a bar. The dog huffs, the chimpanzee lets out some excited squeaks, and the rat makes chirping sounds that are inaudible to the human ear. Clearly someone told a joke, because scientists now believe that some animals laugh. It's not clear why they laugh or what they find so funny, but some animals do indeed seem to indulge in laughter.

Chimps enjoy a good laugh.
Chimps enjoy a good laugh.

Animal studies on rats, monkeys and dogs show that certain sounds they make are indicative of laughter. Rats, for example, make highly pitched squeaks when playing with each other, and monkeys also appear to make laughing noises during play and interaction. The chuff or huff of a dog when he is excited to see you all suggests laughter.

Dogs make a huffing sound when they are playing, as if laughing.
Dogs make a huffing sound when they are playing, as if laughing.

Some other scientific studies suggest that other animals may laugh too. For example, intelligence studies on dolphins have shown that two dolphins can refer to a third dolphin by name. Given the range of vocal performance by dolphins and whales, it would not be surprising to find out these animals laugh, as well.

Zebra's sometimes appear to laugh.
Zebra's sometimes appear to laugh.

What puzzles scientists is what the animals are laughing about. Some studies suggest that they laugh when they are excited or happy. Others believe that laughter is used to gain the attention of their owners. It’s possible that animals laugh when they are enjoying play. Clearly, none of the animals appear to be telling knock knock jokes, but a dog might laugh at the sound of his owner’s knock on the door.

Even rats make shrill sounds when playing.
Even rats make shrill sounds when playing.

It’s possible that they laugh because it confers health benefits to them, just as laughing is very good for people. Laughter can lower blood pressure, ease stress, produce dopamine and growth hormone, and actually be good for the circulatory system. Preschool children may laugh as often as 400 times a day. Since some animals have about the same intelligence level as a two year old human, maybe these animals laugh for the evolutionary benefits achieved by laughing. A chimp that laughs, for example, may be a bigger chimp because he stimulates growth hormones.

Studies show that monkeys can make certain sounds that are indicative of laughter, especially during play.
Studies show that monkeys can make certain sounds that are indicative of laughter, especially during play.

Though humans do like to anthropomorphize animals, they can’t really see the smiling face of a dog as actual smiling. When a pet owner hears that long huff from his dogs, he many recognize them as laughing at or with him, or possibly at some very good joke they heard about the neighbor’s cat.

Some studies suggest that dolphins might be capable of laughing.
Some studies suggest that dolphins might be capable of laughing.
Whales have a wide range of vocal abilities.
Whales have a wide range of vocal abilities.
Two dolphins have been shown capable of referring to a third by name.
Two dolphins have been shown capable of referring to a third by name.
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments

DylanB

Seagulls make noises that sound just like hysterical laughter. Since they do this all the time, I'm guessing it isn't related to humor, though.

I have fed a flock of seagulls before, and after they scarfed down each serving of bread crumbs, they all began to laugh loudly and inch closer to me. Though it sounded just like laughter, I believe that it was a demand for more food.

It kind of made me nervous! Here I was, surrounded by an army of gulls with a limited amount of bread, and they were all laughing at me in a threatening way.

lighth0se33

I know that hyenas laugh, but they don't do this because they are happy or because they think something is funny. I've read that when they laugh, they are frustrated.

There is a lot of competition in the world of hyenas. There are power struggles and fights over food, and the scary laughter is not funny at all.

StarJo

@shell4life – Some animals are very animated, and it is easy to assume they are laughing. I am almost certain that my dog is laughing at times.

He actually grins and shows all his teeth when I get home. Then, he starts blowing air out in what almost sounds like a sneeze but isn't.

It doesn't sound anything like a human laugh, but since it is accompanied by a smile and excitement, I think it's an animal version of a laugh. He definitely huffs and puffs when he's happy.

shell4life

It's hard for me to picture a laughing animal other than a monkey. It's easy to assume that a monkey laughs, because it has that huge grin and makes high-pitched noises. I don't know of any other animal that smiles that big and makes noises at the same time.

anon304628

I was just listening to a crow laugh. I had not grown up with the idea that they laugh. At 43, I think I heard my first laugh from a crow. Maybe he was looking at my life.

anon290706

I know that I have seen the crows in my neighborhood laughing many times. It's a different sort of call from their usual deliverance of information; it's even different from their private family communication. Frequently several crows would land on the roof of the house when there was a party and pry moss from the gutters of the house and proceed to throw the moss at the guests. They didn't look for food under the moss and would break out in a loud and rancorous laughter when they managed to hit someone.

HarryStottle

merci beaucoup. Looks like the business...

WGwriter

Hi Harry,

The research on this study was funded by the Royal Society of London, and conducted by St. Andrews University. It was headed by Dr. Vincent Janik. The study is published in

The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, also called PNAS.

I'm not sure what issue, but no doubt you could look online for abstracts and order the article, or a copy of it from interlibrary loan if you have access to a university library.

Best,

T. Ellis-Christensen

HarryStottle

I'm looking for documentary evidence to support the claim that you make above: specifically that dolphins have been observed referring to an absent dolphin by it's "name" (presumably signature whistle). I've found half a dozen mentions of such a discovery but no reference to the research which revealed it...

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