All over the world, people like to keep pets, and some animal species, among those animals, seem to be real ”stars”. Cats seem to have the highest number of views on the internet and people are wondering why. Animals are beautiful, cuddly, funny when they play, and their child-like behavior makes us want to protect and love them. But what is the real psychology that makes humans show so much affection towards animals?
The relationship between humans and their pets seems to be symbiotic, because both the owners, as well as the animals seem to enjoy and benefit from the interaction. Many people treat their pets like family members and Spain has even granted legal rights to pets in case of a divorce. In the Ukraine war, people did not abandon their pets and took them along with their family on a difficult journey, on which they were risking their lives. Pets are gifted with toys and clothing and people grieve when they die. There are even cemeteries for animals and this tradition of keeping animals goes back in history to the paleolithic, when the first dogs were tamed.
The basis of this symbiotic relationship is the affection humans and animals feel for each other. An animal offers emotional attachment and companionship. Seeing them play is lifting our mood because they look funny and innocent. Animals feel that we appreciate them, and they like to be at the center of our attention. Raising an animal isn't always cheap and we need to dedicate a lot of time to taking care of them. So, how do animals persuade us so easily to make so many sacrifices for them?
Pets, such as dogs or cats, have a very developed emotional intelligence. Dogs especially can very easily read the body language and voice tone of their owners. They know how to react in order to control the emotions of their owners. For example, if a dog feels that the owner is angry, he will usually show a submissive behavior, thus reducing the anger level of his owner. He is showing, by means of his body language, that he is not challenging the human, and that he represents no danger to him. He does that, by laying on the ground, lowering his ears, and closing his eyes. This reaction has a calming effect upon humans, who feel that the animal has understood what he did wrong, and is sorry about his mistake. In fact, the dog's reaction is a temporary one, because, as soon as the opportunity arises, he will probably repeat the unwanted behavior. The dog's behavior thus proves to be a temporary solution to defend himself from punishment.
But the love for animals is not limited to pets. We are fascinated by wild animals as well. We find a baby elephant cute, and a koala nice and cuddly. Scientists have concluded that love for animals is also related to genes. People, who are very fond of animals, seem to have a special gene mutation, which makes them produce a higher amount of the neurotransmitter oxytocin, which is responsible for bonding and affection. Psychologists have concluded that the love people feel for animals is very similar to that which they feel for children. Thus, we are fascinated by the childish behavior displayed by our pets and this makes us want to protect and help them. Our protective behavior is triggered by the fact that animals seem innocent and clumsy and could not help themselves in case of danger.
Seeing animals suffer, brings us great distress and we instinctively want to help them. This behavior is triggered by the action of the mirror neurons. These neurons are the neurological basis of empathy, and they allow us to have an internal experience of another person's emotions. They are triggered both when an action is executed by ourselves, as well as when we see the same action being executed by someone else. This way, when we see an animal suffer, we feel his pain by means of these mirror neurons and we immediately want to help it, in order to stop the pain.
Regarding the genders, females seem to show more empathy towards animals than men, and one reason is the fact that they are genetically built to care for their children, thus they have a genetic predisposition to produce a higher amount of oxytocin than men.
It has been observed that pets not only read the emotions of their owners very accurately, but they can also imitate their behavior very well, a process which is called "mirroring" and which has the role of strengthening the bond between the person who mirrors the behavior, and the person whose behavior is mirrored.
In other words, if a person sees someone else imitate his behavior, he will feel flattered (flattery is a pleasant behavior) and he will feel more affection towards the flatterer (unconsciously hoping to get this pleasant behavior again by means of the actions of the flatterer). Therefore the person who is flattered will display a positive behavior towards the flatterer and the flatterer will try to take advantage of this weakness of the mirrored. But, unlike humans, animals do this action unconsciously.
A dog, whose owner broke his leg and was therefore limping, was also seen limping. His owner was alarmed and took the dog to the vet, believing that his dog has also broken his leg. The vet noticed that the dog was perfectly healthy and that he was only imitating his owner's behavior out of empathy.
But there are also other factors, that make us love animals. Psychologists have noticed, that the round heads and large eyes of some pets unconsciously remind us of the physical traits of human babies, and this resemblance triggers a feeling of affection in humans. The animal fur makes them look cuddly, similar to plush toys, and this aspect makes us want to touch them. Pets have other benefits, too, because they bring emotional stability, reduce the level of stress and improve self-esteem.