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How Attached Are You to Your Four-Legged Companion?

Owner-Pet Attachment

Story at-a-glance -

  • A study published last year takes a look at pet ownership from the perspective of attachment theory.
  • Researchers set out to discover whether pets, like spouses and close friends, provide an important level of support and reassurance to adult pet owners.
  • Study results showed that people with a close emotional connection to their pet get a confidence boost from that relationship, and are also better able to manage stress than people who do not feel a secure attachment to their dog or cat.

By Dr. Becker

A research team from the School of Psychology, Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya, Israel, and the Department of Psychology, University of California, Davis, set out to study pet ownership within the framework of what is known as attachment theory.1

Attachment Theory

According to John Bowlby, the first attachment theorist, attachment is a "lasting psychological connectedness between human beings."2

Attachment theory holds that mothers who are available to their babies and responsive to their needs create feelings of security in their kids. The baby knows he can count on his mother to take care of him, which gives him a solid foundation from which he can go out and explore the world.

According to attachment theory, there are four main elements of attachment:

  • Safe Haven. A child who feels threatened or afraid can return to his caregiver to be comforted and soothed.
  • Secure Base. The caregiver provides a secure, reliable base from which the child can explore the world.
  • Proximity Maintenance. The child tries to stay close to his caregiver, which keeps him safe.
  • Separation Distress. The child becomes upset and distressed when separated from his caregiver.

There are three different attachment styles: secure attachment, ambivalent-insecure attachment and avoidant-insecure attachment.

Securely attached children show some distress when their parent or other caregiver leaves and happiness when she returns. The upset the child feels when a parent leaves is tempered by the child’s knowledge that the parent will return.

When a securely attached child is frightened, she will look to a parent for comfort, because she is confident mom or dad will provide reassurance.

Children who are ambivalent about their attachment to a caregiver typically become very distressed when that parent leaves. Research points to the cause of ambivalent attachment as lack of availability of the mother. These kids can’t depend on mom to be there when they need her.

Avoidant attachment means a child tends to avoid a parent or caregiver. Given a choice, these children show no preference between a parent and a complete stranger. Research suggests this attachment style is probably the result of abusive or neglectful caregivers. A child who is punished for depending on a parent will eventually learn to avoid seeking help from that parent.

Applying Attachment Theory to Pet Ownership

As adults, we lean on supportive friends, a spouse, and sometimes siblings to provide support and reassurance. Based on their results, study author Sigal Zilcha-Mano and his colleagues believe pets can serve the same function.

This seems counterintuitive, since humans assume the caregiver role in their relationships with their pets. But according to the researchers, often a person’s relationship with a pet involves tenderness, warmth, stability and loyalty, all of which can lead to feelings in the human of being loved unconditionally. This feeling of complete acceptance may cause pet owners to look to their companion animal for comfort and reassurance during difficult times.

Click here to find out Dr. Becker's top tips against seasonal pet allergiesClick here to find out Dr. Becker's top tips against seasonal pet allergies

Experiment #1

In one of the Israel study experiments, dog and cat owners answered a pet attachment questionnaire intended to measure their emotional connection with their pet. Then they listed their goals for the future, and rated each one on how likely they were to achieve it.

The study participants were separated into three groups. The first group began by writing a short description of their pet, and then completed the test with their dog or cat in the room with them. The second group also wrote a pet description, but the pet was never in the room with them. The third group didn’t write about their pet and their dog or cat was not present in the room with them.

The results showed that pet owners who had written about their pet listed more goals and had a higher confidence level they would achieve them than pet owners who didn’t write about their dog or cat. This was true whether or not the pet was in the room with the owner during testing.

Not surprisingly, these results only applied to owners who were securely attached to their pet. The confidence boost seen with the attached pet owners was not seen in owners who expressed an avoidant attachment style, which was measured by affirmative answers to questions like, “If necessary, I would be able to give away my pet without any difficulties.”

Experiment #2

Another experiment involved three groups set up the same way - group one wrote a description of their dog or cat and the pet was in the room with them; group two wrote a description, but their pet was not present; group three did not write about their pet nor was their pet present.

Instead of listing goals, these groups were given an extremely difficult word test, and their stress levels were measured via blood pressure readings just before the test began and twice during the test.

Those pet owners who had written about their dog or cat had lower blood pressure during the stressful word test than those who had not, leading researchers to conclude simply thinking about their pets helped the first two groups manage their stress.

However, for those test-takers who expressed an emotional distance or conflict with their pet, there was no calming effect.

You can read the full journal article here: An attachment perspective on human-pet relationships: Conceptualization and assessment of pet attachment orientations.