Do our pets ever really love us – or do they just stick around for the food?

It is almost a year to the day since Dustin, our milky-eyed nervebag of a cat, died and we still miss him a great deal, although he was not a great giver of emotion. We miss his refusing to look our way immensely. And his not wanting to be stroked there, there or there. But it wasn’t Dustin’s fault he was like this. Unknown trauma in kittenhood (he was left in a shoebox at the front door of a vet’s surgery) meant that he lived his entire 11 years in terror of being mauled to death by some unseen enemy. Understandably, this constant fear made Dustin very, very nervous.

Through many years of care and affection, we almost managed to rescue him from this anxiety until – almost as if to prove a point – Dustin was mauled to death by two pet dogs off the lead. When we pulled his frozen body out of the freezer before his funeral, Dustin had a withering expression – “I told you so” it seemed to say. This was the only time we really got to stroke him properly. Frozen solid.

I often find myself wondering whether Dustin loved us. The shamefully needy part of me wants reassurance that we made his 11 years as pleasurable as possible. But can we ever really understand what pets feel for us? After a year of this topic swirling around in my head, I thought I would share where I’ve got to.

 

First, some definitions. There is something very British about the fact we have many, many words to describe types of falling moisture (mist, drizzle, hail, sleet, etc) and yet the most dramatic and powerful of emotions – motivating billions of humans to do extraordinary things for one another each day – is chucked into a single bucket labelled, rather blandly, “love”. One can’t help but feel that the ancient Greeks had it right, by pulling love apart into various strands. Storge (“store-gae”) is the love between family members, for instance; eros is erotic love; philia is something like the loyalty that friendship brings; philautia is love for the self. And so, in this piece, I would like to break the concept of pet love into these neat and easily digestible Greek chunks.

To storge, familial love. It won’t surprise you to learn that dogs, more than any other pet, exhibit oodles of this form of love for us. And, unlike most other pets, these attachments have been the subject of many scientific studies. The science confirms what we knew all along, that most dogs actively choose proximity to humans and, within a few months of being born, a puppy’s attraction is clearly toward people rather than other dogs. Dogs exhibit varying degrees of separation anxiety when their humans temporarily leave them. Blood pressure rates in dogs lower when they are being stroked by us. It is a form of storge that we share with one another. No question.

Studies of brain chemicals add further weight to this relationship. In dogs and humans (in fact all mammals) the behaviours that bond individuals are maintained through a cocktail of molecules that are absorbed in different ways by the brain. Many of these are regulated by brain hormones that include vasopressin and oxytocin, the (dramatically over-hyped) “love” molecule. In all mammals (including humans) production of this hormone spikes when individuals are sexually aroused, while giving birth and while nursing offspring. It also rises when we see those that we love, particularly close family members. Interestingly, dogs respond with an oxytocin surge not only when interacting with one another, but also (unlike nearly all other mammals) when interacting with humans.

A similar phenomenon occurs with cats. One small-scale study suggests that cats do receive an oxytocin boost upon being petted by their owners, so there may be love there, but it reflects one-fifth of the amount seen in dogs. If anything sums up cats, it’s this.

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