The Truth About Cats and Dogs (And Rabbits, Fish, And Frogs)

The Truth About Cats and Dogs (And Rabbits, Fish, And Frogs)

By Annette K. Lacey, Psy.D.

“There is no psychiatrist in the world like a puppy licking your face.”—Bern Williams

When thinking of the bond between people and our companion animals, I am reminded of the U.S. Declaration of Independence.  There are some truths that, like our Founders, I “hold to be self-evident,” such that we are all created equal and that we are endowed with inalienable rights.  Although I am sure that the authors of our nation’s document did not have companion animals in mind when they wrote it, there are some truths that I believe to be self-evident when it comes to our non-human friends.

The first truth is that the deep look of fondness in my dog’s eyes is love, or at least affection.  Although scientists, researchers, and scholars debate whether or not non-human animals experience emotion, an anecdotal approach makes it hard to question the affinity our furry companions have for us. Our dogs wag their tails when they see us, our cats purr like motors when we hold them, our birds sing or imitate our voices, and even fish have been known to acknowledge our presence.  A more objective observer might argue that our companions are only seeking us out for food or other matters of survival, but some studies now suggest that our animals seek intangible benefits from the bond we share with them.  In one study1, dogs who gazed into the eyes of their humans demonstrated increased levels of oxytocin, a bonding hormone also produced by humans when developing emotional connections with their newborn babies.  This finding led dog expert Brian Hare, Director of the Duke Canine Cognition Center, to conclude that dogs are “hugging you with their eyes”2.   the mutuality of the human-animal bond is reinforced by the finding in the same study that the longer their dogs and their people gazed into one another’s eyes, the more oxytocin people began to produce as well.  Moreover, neuroscientist Dr. Gregory Berns3 asserts that dogs snuggle with their people after mealtime, indicating that perhaps emotional rather than physical sustenance may be the motivation in dogs’ behavior.

A second truth that I believe to be self-evident lies paradoxically not in what animals do but in what they do NOT.  In all my years with dogs, cats, guinea pigs, rabbits, fish, frogs and lizards, I have never understood any of them to say the following:

“Get your filthy feet off the coffee table!”

“You could stand to lose a few pounds.”

And my personal favorite back-handed compliment: “You look good today; I didn’t recognize you” !

Stated otherwise, non-human animals often provide a key element of healthy relationships: non-judgment.  Even cats who snub the gourmet food you just bought are not actually criticizing you, but are only expressing a preference in food choice! Stated otherwise, companion animals provide unconditional love and acceptance. 4

The third and last truth for now is that the aforementioned suspension of judgment and criticism helps to build a foundation of trust, which makes our connections with our animals pleasant, fulfilling, and unique.  Studies show that both children and adults have found sharing their secrets with animals to be therapeutic, making the case for the value of therapy dogs everywhere.  Dog sin particular have been found to help combat loneliness, keep people active, help people cope with difficult times in their lives, and provide social support 5 as well as to provide a sense of community. 6

 

Taken as a whole, it is no wonder that the human-animal bond can be one of the most fulfilling of relationships. That is my truth, no bones about it.

References

  1. Shouhei, M., Shiori, E., Nobuyo, O., Mitsuaki, O., Tatushi, O., Kazutaka, M., Takefumi, K. (April, 2015). Oxytocin-gaze positive loop and the coevolution of human-dog bonds. Science, 348(6232), 333-336.
  1. Hare, B. & Woods, V. (2013). The genius of dogs: How dogs are smarter than you think. U.S.A.: The Penguin Group.
  1. Berns, G. (2013). How dogs love us. NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
  1. Shatzman, C. 12 Ways Pets Improve Your Health. Retrieved August 31, 2016 from http://www.health.com/gallery/0,,20810305.html
  1. Staats, Sara, Heidi Wallace, and Tara Anderson. (2008). Reasons for companion animal guardianship (pet ownership) from two populations. Society & Animals, 16(3), 279-291.
  1. Antonacopoulos, N.M., Pychyl, T.A. (2014). An examination of the possible benefits for well-being arising from the social interactions that occur while dog walking. Society & Animals, 22, 459-480

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