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World Mental Health Day: Understanding the pet-human bond (Guest Blog)

What drives our love for animals? Cat owner and psychotherapist Naz Altinok gives us a psychological perspective.

I felt close to animals all my life but didn’t think about why, until I started my training to become a psychotherapist. I found the psychological understanding of the human-pet bond so fascinating, that I wrote half of my graduate thesis on the role of pets in our lives.

The bond between people and animals has been present since the early development of human civilisation. Evidence of this comes from a 14,000-year-old human skeleton hugging a dog skeleton [1]. How cute!

Spring forward to the present day and 40% of UK households own a pet, which equals approximately 12 million people [2].

It is clear pets are good for us. So, what makes us love animals so much? We can find answers in the study of the psychological forces that underlie our behaviour, feelings and emotions.  

Psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott described how babies benefit from transitional objects like blankets and dummies to soothe themselves when their mother is away. In the same way pets are a bit like their owners’ transitional objects, especially in difficult times. Pet owners report feeling calmer, more soothed and a sense of wholeness around their animals [3].

Animals can also make it safe for us to project our feelings onto them [4]. How many times have you looked at your pet and thought she looks sad while you were the one actually feeling that way?

Researchers have discovered many physical and psychological benefits pets have on people. Animals have been found to lower your heart rate, blood pressure and stress hormones as well as increasing happiness [5]. Our furry friends also help with feelings of loneliness and isolation [6]. This has become particularly important since the COVID-19 pandemic started. Many people have been staying at home, finding it harder to socialise. No wonder newspapers have been reporting an increase in pet purchases and adoptions.

Another reason why our pets are so important to us is because they become significant attachment figures. Famous psychologist and psychiatrist John Bowlby highlighted the importance of attachment in our lives [7]. Our animals can provide what we need from significant relationships: unconditional love, safety, affection and consistent presence.

Interestingly, some pets may represent a child for their owners and fulfil the desire to be needed. On the other hand, animals can also be ideal caregivers for their owners through their unconditional love, forgiveness, non-judgmentalism and constant presence [8].

Many people report feeling soothed, accepted and complete in the presence of their pets. Psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut found three main psychological needs to feel whole as a person: mirroring (acknowledgment and recognition), idealising (consistent presence) and twinship (relatability) [9]. There is research supporting the idea that pets can fulfil these needs [10].

Our fascination with our four-legged companions has been the basis of many studies because they fulfil so many psychological needs.

So next time you’re cuddling your cat or playing with your dog, remember the benefits for both your mind as well as your body. 

Naz Altinok

BSc, MA, MBACP, MBPsS

Psychotherapist and Counsellor

www.altinoktherapy.com

References:
1. Arkow, P. (1987). The Loving bond: Companion animals in the helping professions. Saratoga, CA: R & .
2. Pet Food Manufacturers’ Association (PFMA) (2019). Pet Population 2019. Retrieved from http://www.pfma.org.uk/pet-population-2019
3. Lorenz, K. Z. (1964). Man Meets Dog. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
4. Bridger, H. (2001) Companionship with Humans. In Ambrose, A., & Amado, G. (Ed.). The transitional approach to change (pp. 161–172). London: Karnac.
5. Allen, K., Blascovich, J., & Mendes, W. B. (2002). Cardiovascular Reactivity and the Presence of Pets, Friends, and Spouses: The Truth About Cats and Dogs.
6. Headey, B. (1998). Health Benefits and Health Cost Savings Due to Pets: Preliminary Estimates from an Australian National Survey. Social Indicators Research, 47, 233-243.
7. Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and Loss, Vol. 1: Attachment. New York: Basic Books.
8. Fogle, B. (1984). Pets and their people. New York: The Viking Press.
9. Kohut, H. (1971). The analysis of the self. New York: International Universities Press.
10. Brown, S. E. (2011). Self Psychology and the Human–Animal Bond: An Overview. In Blazina, C., Boyraz, G., & Shen-Miller, D. S. The Psychology of the Human-Animal Bond: A Resource for Clinicians and Researchers (pp. 137–149). New York: Springer.

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