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Do Our Pets Really Love Us?

By: Dr. Nicholas Dodman

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In the English language, we have just one word to describe the different types of love. The ancient Greeks were a bit smarter in this respect; they used different words to describe the love for a spouse, a sibling, a parent or a friend.

You have to wonder which word they used to describe the love between pets and people. We know how we feel towards our pets, but do they experience the same emotions toward us? Or is the bond simply a mixture of instinct, dependence and social role?

In short, do our pets really "love" us, as we understand it? In a word, the answer is yes, according to clinical evidence. Food does play a large role in feelings of affection between pet and owner. But dog does not live by biscuit alone – and neither does a cat's affection depend solely on treats. The mere presence and/or touch of a preferred person has been shown to reduce the heart rate of these animals – a sign of bonding. (The same is true with horses.)

Puppy Love

Like people, dogs don't simply like or love someone just because they are there. The personality of the pet and the person makes a large difference. A dominant or independent dog, for instance, is less likely to become enamored with a submissive owner. But he may become attached to someone who is a strong leader. This same person may terrify a dog that has endured hard times. A dog like this is more likely to adore a comparatively gentle owner.

In his book, Dogs Don't Lie About Love, Jeffrey Masson wrote about his relationship with three rescued dogs. Presuming that these dogs were needy, and he is a kind person, the title makes sense. These dogs very likely wear their adoring hearts on their sleeves, so to speak. In my first book, The Dog Who Loved Too Much, I wrote about a needy, hyper-attached dog with separation anxiety. It was the dog's owner who came up with the title to describe her dog's apparent, total devotion and intolerance of separation.

Some dogs do become hopelessly devoted to their owners, greeting them so exuberantly that the owner has no doubt he or she is the center of the dog's universe. But this kind of love is fawning, pathetic and, in a way, self-serving to the dog. It is certainly not a healthy sort of love.

At the other end is a very dominant, confident and independent dog. These dogs may border on indifference, and their feelings are along the lines of tolerance than attachment. They tolerate the owners simply because they are fed.

What is far better is the love in which a dog has learned to trust and respect his owner without abject humility, fear or desperate need to be around all the time. The image this brings to mind is that of a mature Labrador or golden retriever, walking beside his beloved owners, perhaps on the beach. Such dogs have enough confidence to run off and play in the ocean, but enjoy returning to the social group that is the family. This can be described as a healthy love.

Of course, there are those special bonds we have all heard about – when an owner dies, but his or her dog waits patiently for their return. Such was the case of Greyfriars Bobby, an Edinburg dog who sat by his master's grave for many years, until his death, waiting for his master's return. If that is not love, I don't know what is.

Love of a Cat

Cats are said to be independent, aloof, and not in need of company except on their terms. This is true only of some cats; certainly not all. Cats raised by people from an early age either think they are almost human, or that the human is almost a cat.

In fact, throughout a cat-person bond, the two may switch roles without realizing it. On occasion, a cat will bring home a dead or half-dead animal as a token of her love and respect (a touching, if gruesome, method of confirming the bond).

Bringing home "love offerings" of this type is a sign of attachment and belonging. There are others that require less clean up. When the bond is strong, a cat will:

  • Tend to follow you around. She may not follow immediately, but after a moment or two she might casually saunter into the room where you're sitting (as if she's trying to play the whole thing down). Your cat may jump in your lap or may just find a chair nearby. Either way, she prefers to spend time with you.

  • Become slightly depressed when you leave, and greet you enthusiastically upon your return. She may learn to recognize the sound of your car pulling up and run to the door, expecting your presence.

  • Send subtle cat signals of affection to you throughout the day. These often take the form of classic "cat kisses" – staring at you adoringly, then squinting or slowly closing her eyes.

  • Send not-so-subtle signals, such as rubbing her head upon you (marking you with her scent), and of course, purring.

  • Lying on her back, with her stomach exposed. This is a sign of trust, because your cat is now in a vulnerable position. Many owners mistakenly think this is a request for a belly rub. It usually isn't.

    This is a cat's affection at its most intense. They can't hold your hand, and they are not given to jumping up and kissing you. There's no difficulty to describe this sort of relationship as love.

    Jealousy

    If dogs and cats do love us, do they feel jealousy? The answer: not in the same way. They may perceive a change in hierarchy or status when a new person or animal comes in, which changes their behavior (this is particularly true of a new animal). Change in routine is upsetting to both dogs and cats, and they react accordingly.


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