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Animals Can Be Highly Sensitive Too

Cockatiel defends nest
My cockatiel, Pearl, responds readily to any perceived risk – sometimes too readily!

Several years ago I happened across a book by Dr. Elaine Aron called “The Highly Sensitive Person.”

Before I even read the book, I thought to myself, “I think she means me!”

After I read the book, I thought to myself, “Yup, she means me.”

Dr. Aron calculates that approximately 20 percent of people may be hard-wired towards greater emotional sensitivity.

I find this all quite fascinating. But what I find even more fascinating is that humans are not the only species with this type of sensitivity skew.

Dr. Aron and other researchers have tracked down more than 100 different species where some members – approximately 20 percent – display a similar 80/20 skew.

In non-human animals, high emotional sensitivity is more commonly labeled as risk sensitivity, risk-aversion or responsiveness. The context shifts towards how the animal handles daily challenges related to environmental change.

A good example might be a watering hole drying up. While the majority (80 percent) of animals might continue to visit the watering hole, more responsive or risk-sensitive animals (20 percent) might instead choose to seek water in a new location.

Researchers also believe the bias towards a population minority with higher emotional/risk sensitivity is an evolutionary adaptation that benefits the entire community…so long as the entire community numbers 1,000 members or fewer.

The researchers have even traced the origin of this bias to a specific area of the brain that contains ancient shared neural pathways.

This area is called the ventral striatum. It is part of the greater cortico-ventral basal ganglia, which oversees how the individual perceives risk versus potential reward and pursues that reward or doesn’t.

So let’s say you live in a community of 1,000 beings. 800 or so among you are consistent in charging forth to pursue your normal daily routines, assuming all is well and taking an aggressive, proactive role in seeking food, water, shelter and mates in all the usual places.

At the same time, about 200 among you are more likely to have stronger sensitivity to changing or less optimal environmental conditions. This minority contingent is more likely to break with routine if the risk level is perceived to be on the rise.

As long as all goes according to plan, all members of the community will likely be able to get their basic survival needs met. But when the risk or threat level rises, the 200 who are hard-wired to be more risk-sensitive will be quicker to change their behavior and routine and adapt to changing environmental conditions and help their fellow community members to do likewise.

To hear the research tell it, there is a reason 80 percent of the community has a very different response to risk than the other 20 percent – they have different personalities!

“Majority rules” can be a great way to negotiate conflicts within a group and this is why researchers believe that the majority of community members will favor routine, consistency and overall low sensitivity to risk.

But sometimes the majority may be wrong. In this case, it falls to the minority – the members who are more sensitive to risk and will respond quickly to adjust to increased risk – who may “save the day” for the whole community….or at least preserve the chance to keep the species alive until such time as the situation improves.

I’ve always felt like my tribe is a well-hidden bunch. We tend to lurk in the shadows, scoping the situation from afar, carefully assessing whether or with whom to connect, being even overly prone to change behavior at the slightest whiff of risk.

Simply locating one another is often the greatest hurdle to overcome – we don’t necessarily want to be loners, but all that lurking can definitely put a damper on one’s social calendar.

I confess I also wonder if this preference I feel to hang out with others of “my kind” can cross the species barrier. After all, look at my trio, Pearl, Malti and Bruce.

At nearly 21 years of age, Pearl is a perpetually risk averse, highly sensitive cockatiel. The runt of his litter, it is likely his early nest bullying experiences left him with a healthy sense of self-preservation and, consequently, a highly responsive attitude towards new threats.

redfoot tortoise in lap
Malti has literally learned to climb up into my lap as a strategy to get more snacks. It works really well!

Malti is five and a half years old now and she has never lost her “startle” reflex – sometimes if we’ve been apart for a day or two she almost seems to revert to her hatchling feral state.

While she can be doggedly determined to return to favored areas she remembers from the past (and she has an excellent memory) she is also surprisingly quick to pick up new advantageous behaviors when opportunity knocks.

Bruce, our flock’s resident rescued box turtle, is perhaps the best example of all of us. As a semi-wild native turtle living in an increasingly untenable urban environment, he has made a remarkable adaptation to life in captivity, responding at every turn to perceived risk versus desirable rewards and making one smart choice after another.

I can’t always say the same for my own finesse with getting along in a world that often feels so alien to everything about my nature. But as I watch Pearl, Malti and Bruce respond and adapt, respond and adapt again and again and again, I gain fresh courage to embrace my nature, not fighting against it as I used to do but accepting its gifts and learning to use them well.

With great respect and love,


Animals Can Be Highly Sensitive Too

Shannon Cutts

Freelance writer. Author. Cockatiel, redfoot tortoise & box turtle mama.

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APA Reference
Cutts, S. (2020). Animals Can Be Highly Sensitive Too. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 27, 2020, from


Last updated: 1 Apr 2020
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