Dr. Suzanne B. Phillips

Licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomate in Group Psychology, Certified Group Therapist, Author, Radio Host and Media Consultant Covering a Wide Range of Psychological Topics

Post: The Gift of Pets: Forever Young and Needing Us

jasperpuppies!I recently stopped at a country store and as is typical for me, asked a woman who was standing outside with a dog, the name and breed of her dog. She explained that Sophie was a rescue dog of mixed breed. When I asked how old, she picked up the dog, held it to her and said, “ She is seven, but forever a puppy.”

It occurred to me that what she had just said was actually the way most of us feel about the pets we love. Regardless of age, they allow us to enjoy the physical, emotional and even neurophysiological benefits of loving and being loved by them in a special and dependent way.

Most people have had the wish to keep their children, no matter what age, frozen in time. Many have had the experience of showing up at their elderly parents’ home, with their own children and even grandchildren in tow, only to hear Mom or Dad yell (in reference to them) “ The kids are here!”

The difference of course is the push back. Kids push back. They don’t stay home. They are not satisfied being curled up on the couch with us forever. They stop wanting to be in our beds. They cook better food than we ever gave them. They don’t get excited to ride in the car with us. They grow up and move on.

Pets: Forever Young

The pets stay. They don’t live forever, but many live for many years and manage to stay as emotionally dependent on us as they have always been. They don’t push back. If anything, they push closer. They let us care for them in a way they need and we need.

  • One woman tells me that the first morning her husband retired and could sleep late, she checked in on him before she left for work…There he was, on his side of the bed, and lying next to him with paws on his back was Gracie, their beagle–both sleeping like babies.
  • One couple delights that their parakeet, Scarlet predictably begins yelling “hello” around 6 PM each night to remind them they will be feeding her soon.
  • A really big guy explains to his wife that their really big German Shepherd is not lying on the couch—he is lying on him!

The Chemistry of Attachment

A look at the neurophysiology of pets and owners reveals that it is not just that we love feeling needed and valued, the reciprocal affiliation we share with pets actually changes neurochemistry.

Research by Rebecca Johnson, professor of nursing and veterinary medicine, finds, that interaction with dogs, for example, not only results in an increase in serotonin which reduces depression, it results in increases in the amounts of prolactin and oxytocin, the two hormones that wire us for mothering, nursing and care of an infant.

  • Oxytocin is nature’s way of creating mothers as it promotes bonding and the desire for further contact. It is especially released in response to skin-to-skin contact.
  • Fathers also experience an increase in oxytocin levels toward the end of their mate’s pregnancy. The more time a man spends with his infant, the more the oxytocin will promote his involvement in the infant’s care in a self-perpetuating cycle.
  • Prolactin also promotes caregiving behaviors and neural pathways to favor these behaviors in mothers and fathers. For women, it is triggered by suckling and promotes milk production and maternal behaviors. For men, it is most elevated with time spent with the infant.

It is striking that the caregiving and bonding that we feel so strongly with our pets, both reflects and is driven by the same chemistry that bonds us as humans to the care of offspring.

Mutual Attunement

Congruent with the parent-infant bond, is mutual attunement. As any pet owner knows, and as discussed in The Psychology of the Human-Animal Bond, there is a powerful attunement that pets and owners share.

  • When Callie, a clever Jack Russell lifts and drops her food bowl (sounding like dinner in a prison), we know it means she is hoping we will not realize she has eaten and will feed her again—we love it! 
  • When a combat vet describes that his companion dog just seems to know when he has a migraine and stays by his side—he appreciates their connection in a special way.
  • When I am left for the first time with Brooklyn, a little French Bull dog, we both stare at the door as it shuts behind my son and his wife. I tentatively look down to see Brooklyn cautiously looking up with one eye as if to say, “ So this is it.” I sit down next to her. She inches next to me. We understood – no words needed.
  • When the cat that always stays with Mom and Dad, automatically relocates to the room of the sick or frightened child—we are moved by her sense of knowing. 

Psychologists tell us that in the child’s development, attunement is the crucial building block that fosters development of self, the regulation of stress, the internalization of parental caregiving and the capacity to separate and function as an adult.

With pets, attunement is also a crucial building block. The attunement may result in delight, enhanced performance or improved behavior on the part of the pet and the owner; but the goal is not separation. The goal is ongoing mutual connection.

The Bottom Line

Unlike the comments that many have said or heard about parents and children, few have heard anyone say, “ This dog/cat is going to kill me!”

In fact, research tell us that pet owners live longer and that pets provide us with benefits as important as lowering blood pressure, increasing activity, reducing loneliness, lifting depression etc. Essentially they play an important part in keeping us healthy–if we let them.

The Gift of Pets

It’s not that anyone really wants pets to replace children or children to stay young, dependent and at home.

It’s that pets are different.

Part of the magic of pets is that they are supposed to stay forever young. We are supposed to care for them forever and that is just what we want.

We love them because they want, need and accept our care.

They delight us and seem delighted with us.

They figure out a way to love us and even to share us.

We accept their imperfections and they tolerate ours.

They gift us with a reason to love and to live.

 Postscript ( picture below)

Jasper, one of my grandpets, was one of the puppies in the litter seen above. Jasper is a Rhodesian Ridgeback who weighs more than I do, but who is really a “ big little guy” with the same puppy eyes he has always had. He is as protective as he is cuddly and… he is the only male in the family who has not outgrown my suggestion to put on a sweatshirt when I feel—“he must be cold!”