Human Attachment to Companion Animals

Chapter 3
Human Attachment to Companion Animals

Co-authors: Iben Meyer DVM, PhD1 and James A. Serpell PhD2

1Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Large Animal Sciences, University of Copenhagen, Copenhagen, Denmark

2Marie A Moore Professor of Animal Ethics and Welfare, Director, Center for the Interaction of Animals and Society, School of Veterinary Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA, USA

  1. 3.1 Introduction
  2. 3.2 What People Do with Their Companions
  3. 3.3 Relating to Companion Animals
  4. 3.4 Effects on Human Health

3.1 Introduction

Companion animals are distinctive by virtue of their relationship with their human owners and other co-habitants. Although they may have other roles too, dogs, cats and other companion animals play a part in the personal and emotional lives of the humans with whom they live and interact. The relationship is often described by using expressions such as ‘friends’ or ‘family’, terms otherwise reserved for important relations between human beings.

The relationship between humans and companion animals is sometimes understood in terms of a special bond between the human and the animal; the ‘human-companion animal bond’. While it is very difficult to know how the companion animal experiences this bond (Prato-Previde et al., 2003), much more is known about how the human attaches to the companion animal – which is the focus of this chapter. We will try to understand the ways in which people interact with, and become attached to their companion animals, and we will also look at how this affects their well-being and health. In passing, we will also consider some of the consequences for the well-being of the animals. However, our main discussion of companion animal welfare and how to assess it is in Chapter 4.

The main focus of this chapter is on human attachment to dogs and cats. Of course, people also keep other species such as guinea pigs, rabbits or various birds for companionship. However, it is fair to say that dogs and cats are the typical companion animals. Unlike the other animals that fill the role of companions, dogs and, to a lesser extent, cats, are highly domesticated and a key part of their domestication has been to fit into the niche of co-habiting with humans.

Dogs and cats, unlike most other types of companion species, are usually allowed to move freely around – at least within the house – because they can relatively easily be housetrained and, in the case of dogs (and to a lesser degree cats), they can also be trained to obey instructions. Together with their highly expressive natures, and sensitivity to human nonverbal communication signals, this enables these animals to easily achieve particularly close bonds with their human co-habitants.

In the following section, we outline the diversity of activities through which people bond with their animal companions. Then, we survey the psychological literature on human attachments to companion animals, to try to gain a deeper understanding of how companions matter to their human owners. Finally, we briefly review the potential beneficial, or harmful, psychological and other health effects that humans may experience as a result of their relation to companion animals.

3.2 What People Do with Their Companions

Attachment typically develops through doing things together, so an overview of the ways in which people engage with their companion animals is a useful starting point for this chapter.

As already mentioned, the dog was the first animal to be domesticated, and historically, human relations to dogs have developed through very practical shared activities. Evidence suggests that people used dogs for guarding and hunting more than 8000 years ago (Miklósi, 2007: p. 56). With the emergence of agricultural societies, dogs’ roles diversified, and there is evidence that different strains of dogs were then bred for different tasks, such as hunting, herding, guarding, warfare and providing companionship (Brewer, Clark & Phillips, 2001; Miklósi, 2007).

Many of these classic tasks are still performed by working dogs, but some dogs primarily kept as companions also carry out similar tasks. For example, companion dogs are used in recreational hunting, for herding by those with hobby farms, in competitive sports, or are trained for police or military-type work as a sport. Many people take their young dogs or puppies to obedience training as part of their upbringing, and then continue to other types of competitive activities, such as agility. Finally, owners may enter their dog in shows, where they are assessed both for how well they meet breed standards, and how they behave when presented in the show ring.

A dog sport can develop into a ‘culture of commitment’ which, according to one study,

shapes such life realms as how time is used, how money is spent, how kin are defined, and how profit is viewed. Sometimes it generates strong behavioural expectations for participants, expectations that clash with those of the “real world”.

(Gillespie, Leffler & Lerner, 2002: p. 285)

Like any sport or hobby, dog sports can absorb the participants to a degree where it is difficult to balance other demands, for example, from family, work and the like. The following is an example, quoted in the previously mentioned study, of how much a dog sport can affect the life of even a newcomer:

My best friend adopted a young Border Collie from the Humane Society last year. She thought “just for fun” she would try some herding. Well, that adopted dog and that “just for fun” herding experience has [sic] prompted a move to the country so she could have her own sheep, a new Border Collie puppy (you can’t have just ONE Border Collie if you also have sheep!), and a new van to haul the Border Collies around. That adopted Border Collie also turned out to have tremendous obedience and agility potential as well, so of course the new place has to have an adequate area for obedience and agility training!

(Gillespie, Leffler & Lerner, 2002: pp. 289–290)

Cats are much less often used in recreational and training activities, with the exception of the competitive showing of purebred pedigree cats. Although there are more companion cats than dogs (as we saw in Chapter 1), fewer are purebred. Since all animals entering shows organised by breed clubs must be purebred (see more on this in Chapter 7), a much lower proportion of cats are used for showing, compared to dogs.

Most companion animals, however, are not involved in a hobby or sport – their role is to be part of the family or the household. Even within this role, dogs and cats may serve a number of different functions.

Some family dogs take on the traditional role of guardian: having a dog in the house may make people feel safer (Serpell, 1990). For the same reason, some people may acquire dogs, such as Dobermans or Rottweilers, that appear intimidating. Typically, however, the main role of a dog or a cat in the home is to provide company. This is especially the case for people who live on their own, childless couples or those whose children have left home (empty nesters). A dog or a cat may provide an opportunity to have another being to look after and care for. Care giving is rewarding in its own right for some people (Julius et al., 2013: p. 139) and the dog or cat is likely to reward the owner by showing affection and thereby making her or him feel needed. It is common for people to refer to their companion animal as their child, and to refer to companion dogs and cats as members of the family (cf. e.g. Greenebaum, 2004; Hirschman, 1994; Marinelli et al., 2007; Power, 2008). Even parents with children commonly acquire dogs or cats to provide company, not only for themselves but also for their children. According to one American study,

Pet ownership is particularly high among families with grammar-school-age and teenage children… The motivation for owning a pet among families at the “middle” stage of the life cycle is rooted in the belief that pets perform beneficial functions for children. Data obtained in the home interviews reveal that parents view the activities involved in caring for a pet as useful in teaching children desirable attributes such as independence and responsibility. Parents also stress the companionship roles that pets play for children.

(Albert & Bulcroft, 1988: p. 547)

However, in contrast to this, an Australian study found that a majority of dog owners did not think that, ‘to teach children about responsibility’ and ‘to provide children with companionship’ were important reasons to acquire a dog (Bennett et al., 2007). Similarly, a report from Statistics Sweden shows that the number of households with both dogs or cats and children had decreased from 2006 to 2012, whereas the number of households with dogs or cats and two adults had increased in the same period (Statistics Sweden, 2012). This may indicate that the role of dogs and cats in the family is undergoing change so that dogs and cats are increasingly not just being seen as companions for children (Figure 3.1). Below, more is said about how the animal’s role in a family structure may affect human attachment.


Figure 3.1 Centenarian lady with her pet cat. Companion animals are increasingly viewed as family members, to spend time and do enjoyable things with, confide in, love and take care of.

(Olyniteowl/Getty Images.)

Dogs (much more than cats) typically also have other functions than to provide company. Walking a dog may be intrinsically rewarding, but it also offers other more indirect benefits. First, walking may be good for the walker’s general well-being and long-term health – we will return to this later in the chapter. Second, being with a dog in a public space can facilitate social contact with, and help from, other people (Guéguen & Ciccotti, 2008; McNicholas & Collis, 2000). Furthermore, the presence of dogs and other companion animals may have a general positive ‘ripple’ effect within a neighbourhood, for example by ‘fostering of a “visible people presence” in the community’ or because ‘pet owners are more likely to be interested in local issues and to engage in civic activities’ (Wood et al., 2007). Of course, a high number of large dogs that are not well controlled may have the opposite effect.

Research also suggests that dogs, in particular, may be used as means for their owners to portray themselves as they want to be seen by others (Hirschman, 1994; Mosteller, 2008). So, for instance, owners may acquire dogs that are viewed as loyal and affable, thereby displaying family values; or they may choose more extreme dog types, such as Rottweilers or Chihuahuas, that are sometimes associated with masculine or feminine stereotypes, respectively. Companion animals with extreme and endearing features such as Shar Peis, Bulldogs, Pugs or Persian cats may also focus interest on the people who own them. Here we start to move away from animals as companions towards animals viewed as toys, status symbols or brands – what some authors term ‘the dark side of pet ownership’ (Beverland et al., 2008).

Finally, companion animals may give people with whom they interact the opportunity to try to view the world and their surroundings from new perspectives. For example, when walking with a dog, one may become aware of a multifaceted olfactory dimension of reality of which we, as humans, with our limited and culturally suppressed sense of smell are normally not aware. One author (Timmins, 2008) links this to the alleged need to be in touch with nature (cf. Wilson’s (1984) idea of biophilia). Thus according to Timmins, ‘companion animals may serve as transitional objects that satisfy this innate urge to interact with the natural world’ (p. 540).

There is no doubt that these activities normally improve the quality of life of the owners who live with them. But how do they impact on the animals? Some of the activities will likely affect animals’ welfare positively, with two particular potential benefits from the companionship relation: dogs and cats gain from being fed and looked after, and they typically seem to enjoy engaging with their human owners.

Many companion dogs seem to prefer human company to the company of conspecifics. For example, the smell of a familiar human is associated with more positive expectations than the smell of a familiar dog (Berns et al. in press), and humans have been shown to have a greater stress-reducing effect on shelter dogs than conspecifics (Tuber et al., 1996). This may be one of the reasons why many cases of separation-related behaviour problems in dogs are not solved by the acquisition of a second, companion dog.

Successful human–animal interactions will, therefore, often also benefit the animal. For example, a dog used by an owner for hunting or training will probably gain positive experience from the activity. A cat pampered by an elderly owner will very likely enjoy the attention the owner gives it.

However, there are also potential problems of at least four sorts, which will be dealt with in more detail later in the book. First, sometimes a bond is not successfully created, or something damages it, resulting in frustration for the owner and potentially in welfare problems and relinquishment for the animal (see Chapter 13). Second, there can be welfare dilemmas, for example, animals with an extreme conformation that can help to generate deep bonds with people, but which at the same time leads to breed-related welfare problems (see Chapter 7). Third, some owners are too busy, and do not manage to make time for their animals. This may result in boredom, lack of care and other welfare problems for the animal, but may also potentially reduce the owner’s welfare, by generating guilt about not being able to look after the animal well, and because the perceived costs of keeping the animal (vet bills, reduced freedom, etc.) exceed the perceived benefits. Finally, there are owners who acquire animals for reasons that make developing a bond with them less likely – for instance, as a pure status symbol – and others that have unrealistic expectations of what living with an animal involves.

Despite these not uncommon problems, companion animals are both highly significant and, as we saw in Chapter 1, hugely popular – with between a fifth and a third of all households in most Western countries having dogs and similar proportions with cats. They affect how people organise their lives, and spend their time and money; they also have the potential to significantly impact the quality of the lives of their human owners.

3.3 Relating to Companion Animals

In this section, we look at attempts to conceptualise and measure the ways people relate to companion animals, in terms of the relations that characterise typical human–human family relations. A widely used approach to the characterisation of the human–companion animal relation is the psychological framework of attachment. The concept of attachment was originally used to describe the degree of emotional bonding between an infant and its caregiver (Bowlby, 1958) and was later broadened to also include other types of human relationships (Hazan & Shaver, 1987; Trinke & Bartholomew, 1997) as well as human–dog relationships (Julius et al., 2013).

Although it seems that dogs, and perhaps also other companion animals, can function as attachment figures for their owners, the use of measures from human–human attachment models to characterise human attachment to animals has been questioned, as it does ‘not necessarily encompass the entirety of attachment theory as it has been applied in human–human relationships’ (Crawford, Worsham & Swinehart, 2006: p. 100). In addition, attachment models only look at the positive aspect of forming bonds with a companion animal. This could result in bias when assessing the value of human relations to companion animals, which should be seen as depending on the balance between perceived benefits and costs. Relationship models that incorporate both positive and negative aspects include the Monash Dog Owner Relationship Scale (MDORS) (Dwyer, Bennett & Coleman, 2006) and the Network of Relationships Inventory (NRI) (Furman & Buhrmester, 1985).

The NRI is used in a study that we will take as our starting point in the description of the human bond to companion animals. The study was undertaken in Britain, where 90 participants belonging to 40 households with dogs, cats and other companion animals were asked to fill out a questionnaire originally developed to measure relations between humans in their functions as family members, friends and the like (Bonas et al., 2000). The study is interesting because it compares human–human and human–companion animal relations, and it looks at both positive and negative aspects of these relations.

The questionnaire separates the relations that people have with companion animals and other humans into the following seven components: companionship (spending time or doing enjoyable things together), instrumental aid (the other is providing help), intimacy (confiding in or sharing private thoughts with), nurturance (taking care of the other), affection (love and care, both ways), admiration

Feb 16, 2017 | Posted by in GENERAL | Comments Off on Human Attachment to Companion Animals
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