No relationship that humans have is quite like the attachment we form to non-humans. Many of us live with or have lived with an animal at some point in time. Currently, according to the American Humane Society, 39% of U.S. householders own at least one dog, and 33% own at least one cat.
Social psychologists argue that pets are natural objects of human attachment, being easily accessible, active, and affectionate. As my UMass colleague and attachment researcher Paula Pietromonaco put it, pets are "the ideal attachment figures." It makes sense, then, to study our feelings toward these ready and willing attachment figures using similar methods that we use to zero in on the nature of human-human relationships.
Attachment theory was recently rated by a sample of social psychologists in an informal survey as psychology's most important theory in psychology. A derivate of psychodynamic theory, the attachment perspective proposes that people vary in the way they relate to the key figures in their lives. As adults, we recreate the relationships we had with our caregivers when we were infants with the people in our lives who currently occupy center stage. Using questionnaires, attachment theory researchers measure what they call "attachment style" or "attachment orientation" in which they examine the patterns of expectations about a relationship, emotions, and behaviors that people develop through their relationship history. Attachment style forms around what theorists call the internal working model, which is the way you think about the important figures in your life.
Our attachment styles are evident in the way we relate to these internal working models. If we view these models with anxiety, we worry that our partners will not be available and supportive when we need them and so try to remain as close to them as possible. If we are high on the dimension of avoidant anxiety, we distrust our partners and try to remain as self-reliant as possible. Attachment style isn't a personality "trait" as much as it is an orientation and it can vary by attachment objects. Your specific position on the two attachment dimensions can differ with regard to types of relationships such as family, friends, and romantic partners.
Armed with this background, what can you learn about attachment to the non-humans who populate your life? Researchers Zilcha-Mano, Mikulincer, and Shaver (2011a) conducted a series of studies in Israel in which they tested a scale they called the "Pet Attachment Questionnaire." They queried pet owners (and past pet owners) in such places as parks, pet food stores, universities and malls; nearly three-quarters had dogs and the remainder had cats.
In one study, Zilcha-Mano and collaborators examined the relationships between the two attachment dimensions and the Five Factor personality traits. As you might expect, people high in attachment anxiety in fact tended to be higher on the trait of neuroticism. Those high in extraversion were less likely to have avoidant attachment to their pets.
Next, the researchers explored whether people would compensate for poor relationships with humans by forming stronger attachment bonds with their pets or whether people would match their attachment orientation in human relationships to those they had with their pets. The "matching" hypothesis won out over the "compensation" hypothesis. People's internal working models of their human relationships do match those they have with their pets. People insecurely attached to other people also are insecurely attached to the furry creatures in their lives. However, people who were insecurely attached to their pets, regardless of their attachment to humans, had poorer mental health. Pet attachment seems to play an important role in overall mental health.
Since pets have much shorter lifespans than humans, a natural question to ask is how people with anxious and avoidant attachment to their pets would react to their pet's death. As with attachment toward humans, the loss of a pet can touch deeply at the roots of an individual's emotions. In examining the relationships between pet attachment and avoidance, the research team found that people high in anxiety showed extremes of emotional reactions; those with high pet avoidance attachment were less distressed after their pets died and showed less yearning for their pets. On the other hand, people high in attachment anxiety showed more chronic, unresolved grief. Surprisingly, these reactions were explained only by pet attachment, not by the attachment style the participants had to other humans. It's clear that the attachment we have toward our pets, in and of itself, is an important feature of our psychological life.
To help you find out how you rate on your own pet attachment, I've chosen 10 questions from the Pet Attachment Questionnaire, 5 from each scale. The stronger your endorsement of each item, the more likely it is that you are either avoidant or anxious in your pet attachment:
How did you rate? Remember, this is only a sampling of the full test items, but your responses can give you an indication of whether you need to develop a more favorable orientation to your pet.
Pet therapy, a rapidly growing field within psychology and mental health, is showing that pets can play important roles not only to provide physical but also psychological support. In fact, Zilcha-Mano and collaborators (2011b), are developing an attachment-based approach to Animal Assisted Therapy. In this model, they attempt to meet unmet attachment needs of their clients to help them develop healtheir modes of relating both to pets and humans. With this research, we can gain insight not only into the role of pets in the lives of humans, but also ways to promote healthier overall adjustment.
We need our pets but it's also important to remember that they deserve proper care. To find out more, check out the excellent resources on the ASPCA website.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2012
Zilcha-Mano, S., Mikulincer, M., & Shaver, P. R. (2011a). An attachment perspective on human-pet relationships: Conceptualization and assessment of pet attachment orientations. Journal Of Research In Personality, 45(4), 345-357. doi:10.1016/j.jrp.2011.04.001
Zilcha-Mano, S., Mikulincer, M., & Shaver, P. R. (2011b). Pet in the therapy room: An attachment perspective on Animal-Assisted Therapy. Attachment & Human Development, 13(6), 541-561. doi:10.1080/14616734.2011.608987