Strong, interdependent relationships have been cultivated between humans and nonhuman animals for thousands of years (Amiot & Bastian, 2015). While nonhuman animals are utilized in countless ways ranging from food, clothing, etc., one of the more complex relationships exists between humans and their companion animals.
Pet-keeping as we know it only began taking form two centuries ago (Ritvo, 1987). Today, however, companion animals are considered by most of their humans as family members. Dogs and cats specifically are uniquely qualified to formulate special bonds with their human families (Irvine, 2004, p. 12). Canids were the first nonhuman animals to be domesticated, although scientists don’t agree on the exact timing nor the exact process (p. 13). There is even less known about the origin of cats, and there is even some debate regarding whether or not they are truly domesticated (p. 16-17).
There are countless, detailed attempts at recounting the domestication of dogs and cats in various platforms, but more discussion can be had on the psychological contributions to the creation of these special relationships. One theory termed biophilia is often cited as one of the primary reasons humans gravitate towards nonhuman animals (Amiot & Bastian, 2015, p. 3).
“Biophilia … refers is the innately emotional affiliation that humans have toward other life forms… [It] is not a single instinct but a complex of learning rules that trigger a variety of emotional reactions to animals, which are themselves shaped by culture” (Amiot & Bastian, 2015, p. 3).
Similarly, humans also have what has been coined as the “cute response” which describes the effect that young animals have on humans, possibly due to the similar physical features they share with human infants (Amiot & Bastian, 2015, p. 3). Caring for and feeling empathy for nonhuman animals may have been evolutionarily advantageous, reinforcing our desire to care for human infants while also encouraging the domestication of animals and herding.
The “cute response” may also play a role in another complexity of the human-animal relationship referred to as attachment bonding. Attachment bonding occurs within relationships, most notably between parent and child, when four prerequisites are met (Amiot & Bastian, 2015, p. 22). They include: proximity seeking, safe haven, secure base, and separation distress. Empirical studies have demonstrated that some companion animals do meet those four prerequisites. There is also evidence of increased levels of the “bonding hormone” oxytocin when humans interact with their companions (Yuhas, 2015, p. 32). This information indicates that an attachment bond can exist between humans and their companions. Using research on the various levels and types of attachment that occur in human-animal relationships can help us to become better guardians, and more research on the topic is necessary.
Another reason why humans have chosen certain nonhuman animals as their companions (and family members) may lie in our sociality. Irvine (2004) discusses the “deficiency argument” that “assumes people who enjoy the company of animals lack the qualities or skills that would allow them to enjoy human company (p. 18).” Similarly, Yuhas (2015) discusses how “..interacting with animals may be an especially good buffer against stress for those who find human social interaction difficult” (p. 32). Various studies have also discussed the role companion animals play in providing social support where some humans may otherwise be lacking (Duvall Antonacopoulos & Pychl, 2008). However, Irvine (2004) argues that it is more likely that companion animals provide unique companionship serving as supplements rather than substitutes for our human relationships (p. 22).
These are just a few of the various possible reasons explaining why such special, complex relationships exist between humans and certain nonhuman animals. Using our growing understanding of these relationships, we can deepen our ancient, interspecies bonds.
What do you think about how and why humans have such special relationships with their companions? Let us know in the comments below!
Amiot, C. E., & Bastian, B. (2015). Toward a psychology of human-animal relations. Psychological Bulletin, 141(1), 6–47. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0038147
Antonacopoulos, N. M. D., & Pychyl, T. A. (2008). An Examination of the Relations between Social Support, Anthropomorphism and Stress Among Dog Owners. Anthrozoös, 21(2), 139–152. https://doi.org/10.2752/175303708X305783
Irvine, L. (2004). If You Tame Me: Understanding Our Connection With Animals (1 edition). Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Ritvo, H. (1987). The Emergence of Modern Pet-Keeping. Anthrozoös, 1(3), 158–165. https://doi.org/10.2752/089279388787058425
Yuhas, D. (2015, June). Why Do We Have Them? Scientific American, 26(3), 28–33.
Owner of Coexistence Consulting. Master of Science in Anthrozoology. Certified Professional Dog Trainer. Certified Fear Free Animal Trainer. Certificate in Applied Animal Behavior. Student in The Academy for Dog Trainers.