Monday, March 18, 2013

Attachment Theory and Pets

Dog lover? Ever wonder why you get the urge to pet a stranger’s dog when you pass them by on the street? Cat lover? Is your first instinct when you meet a new cat to pet them? Psychotherapist and professor, Pat Sable, believes attachment theory might play a role in how humans interact with pets, as explained in her article, “The Pet Connection: An Attachment Perspective,” which was published in the Clinical Social Work Journal on March 1st, 2013. Humans are biologically programmed to seek emotional and psychical contact with people (and, as Sable argues, pets) who are known to them and can provide “psychological and physical protection.” Sable elaborates, pointing out that pets are proven to benefit owners by reducing stress and increasing health, even going as far as saying that pets can solve the sense of loneliness reportedly caused by social media platforms, such as Facebook. In fact, as the economy tanked and social media becomes more and more prevalent the number of pets goes up. Pets, if you ask the owners, are more likely to be considered part of the family than not. As Sable points out, it has been documented that many people during Hurricane Katrina were willing to risk their own lives in order to save their pets. So obviously there is some kind of attachment, but does attachment theory apply?
When babies are first held by their mother oxytocin is released in both the mother and child, establishing a chemical bond. Babies who are born without the availability of contact from a mother for a variety of reasons are usually still given contact, which is administered like any other medical treatment. It is no wonder that the domestication of wolves began with wolves allowing humans to touch them. From my own experience, I would say that my dog was attached to me and visa versa. Whenever I pet my dog, he would relax and shut his eyes. He would even expose his tummy, a vulnerable and submissive position for canines, so long as I pet him. When I, one of my parents or any one of my siblings arrives home after an absence, my dog would run to them and initiate contact. When I would leave the house the dog would follow me to the door and look at me willing me to stay—it reminded me of the baby’s in the attachment videos who were securely attached not liking when their mother left. And, considering my dog’s behavior on my return, I’d say he was securely attached. But my dog’s loyal and consistent behavior, while it might mean he is attached, I can see where Sables is coming from in suggesting that humans are attached to their pets.
Sable argues that pets can provide the “psychological and physical protection” humans seek in other humans. In fact, the sweeping argument in the article is that relationships with pets should be researched in a similar scientific manner that human to human relationships are studied. Considering that the majority of households in the United States have pets and the benefits of having a pet, studying the human and pet relationship is to our benefit. Pets have been used to cheer patients with terminal disease, help people with post-traumatic stress disorder, and as a daily and general stress reliever. Though, Sable concludes, that the pet and human relationship is not exactly a human to human relationship in terms of attachment, the comparison is important. What pet and human forms of attachment prove is the human need for attachment in general. Pets are a way that humans can feel attached even without the presence of other humans. So maybe growing up to be a crazy-cat woman who has a bunch of cats instead of an atomic family is not so crazy after all. Rather, it is quite good for you.

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