There is little that my sister, Emma, and I can really talk about. Being seven years older than me, my sister is in a completely different point in her life and is constantly busy with her new job as a medical resident. Despite this difference, whenever we do talk, there is one topic that we never tire of: the unconditional and intense love we have for our cats, Yiggy and Loki.
This feeling of intense love for a pet is not uncommon. Many people love their pets and some would even say they prefer their pets to other people. Contrary to popular belief, preferring a pet to others does not mean that the person is socially inept or that their affections have been misplaced (Walsh, 2009). In fact, it is suggested that those with strong connections to animals have “large capacities for love, empathy, and compassion” (Walsh, 2009). These bonds are able to form in part because pets, as well as their owners, are capable of cognitive, emotional, and social intelligence. In fact, animals, like humans, have primary emotions like fear, sadness, anger, disgust, surprise, and joy (Bekoff, 2008). Dogs have been found to have complex thinking and feelings such as showing their emotional attachment to their owners on a daily basis by greeting them as they walk into the door (Bekoff, 2008). Even birds have been taught to understand and use symbols to show feelings and concepts. (Walsh, 2009). In addition, pets are often shown to have emotional attachments not only to their humans in domestic situations but also to others of their species in the wild. In fact, feral cats prefer to stay in groups, despite their narcissistic desire to do as they please (Masson, 2002). And household cats, while showing a spectrum of attachment, can occasionally be incredibly affectionate for our equal benefit (Masson, 2002). Amazingly, these mutual feelings of attachment and love are nothing new.
For thousands of years, animals have held important places in the lives of humans. In ancient societies, animals were an integral part of our survival, as well as our physical and mental health. Our dependence on animals came about through the domestication and socialization of animals in which dogs were used for agricultural purposes and cats became pest control. In ancient civilizations such as Egypt, China, and Greece, dogs were known to be loyal pets but were also used for the functional purposes of herding, hunting, and protecting their owners. As history progressed, pets were used to amuse their owners while also providing a form of stress release. Pets were even considered a substitution for the loss of a loved one and helped reduce the stress of such an event through positive interactions and social support (Walsh, 2009).
In cases of extreme stress such as a loss, having a pet can be extremely beneficial. According to Walsh, having a pet can “contribute to good health, psycho-social well-being, and recovery from serious conditions” (Walsh, 2009). Pets allow us to relax, bond, and improve the functioning of our immune systems. This relaxation and bonding, in particular, can be attributed to the fact that our pets never judge us, as society tends to do. In moments of sadness, companion animals can give us physical, emotional, and social contact without the pressures of social pretenses (Walsh, 2009). This feeling of freedom from society is especially important in situations of neglect or abuse. In these situations, pets could help to make stressful situations more bearable. For those with experiences of domestic abuse, having a pet can force them to get up in the morning and be responsible for something other than themselves (Walsh, 2009). This can help to reduce the stress and anxiety in their life while also helping them to recover.
Pets can also have a positive effect on those with mental health disorders. According to Walsh, pet owners with schizophrenia had reduced apathy, a better quality of life, and more motivation. In this case as with others, having a pet allowed the person to shift their attention to the pet instead of focusing negatively on themself. Having a pet also encourages a person to strike up a conversation about their pet helping to reduce feelings of isolation, which in turn reduces anxiety, depression, and loneliness (Walsh, 2009).
In our current society, life has seemed to become increasingly more stressful and hectic. Therefore, the role of pets has become increasingly important because they offer a way to relax and enjoy oneself. Pets also fulfill the need for a consistent, reliable relationship while reducing stress and anxiety felt in every day life.
Bekoff, M. (2008). The emotional lives of animals: A leading scientist explores animal joy, sorrow, and empathy-and why they matter. Novato, CA: New World Library.
Masson, J.M. (2005). The nine emotional lives of cats. New York: Ballantine Books.
Walsh, Froma. (2009). Human-animal bonds I: The relational significance of companion animals. Family Process 48(4), 462-80. (Accessed Feb, 23 2016).