Within the shelter of our own homes, one-half to two- thirds of us look on our pets as full-fledged family members. We speak of our pets as if they’re our children, invite them into our beds with us, celebrate their birthdays, take them on vacations, and even chat to them on the phone as we leave messages on the answering machine. While we all talk to animals in one way or other, an astounding 94 percent of us speak to them as if they were human.1 And more than 90 percent affirm that our pets indeed respond in turn to our human fancies, emotions, and moods. By the same token, just as many believe our pets share human personality traits, such as being inquisitive, outgoing, or shy.2 Considering how we regard our connection with them, perhaps it’s not surprising at all that slightly more than half of us would willingly risk our lives for our pets, and even more believe that our pets would devotedly rescue us.

Based on the findings from a recent survey, should fate somehow leave us for the rest of our days on an island living with one single companion, most of us would choose a dog or cat above a human (stranger, family, or even best friend). Perhaps even more telling, when asked, “Who listens to you best?” almost half of us confess that we feel most heard by our animal companions.3 And yet, though these may seem remarkable statistics, from the close bonds I’ve forged with my clients through the years—the stories they’ve shared, the relationships I’ve studied, the ties that I’ve witnessed between people and their pets—I simply accept them as a matter of truth.

Why would we choose to spend the rest of our lives with a pet as our partner instead of a person? How does an animal, simply with their presence, bring us more comfort than the arms of a friend? Why do we feel other species listen better, understand our emotions, and attend to our feelings more than our fellow human beings do?

I believe the answers to these questions lie in the sense of belonging we feel in the company of other creatures. In the presence of animals, we find true acceptance. Unlike with our peers, we feel no need to explain ourselves. Alone with them, our self-consciousness dissolves. With radios turned up as we drive down the freeway, we croon, trill, or belt out our songs with abandon, mindless of our dog panting in the seat behind us. Stepping from the shower to dry ourselves on the bathroom mat, we stand stark naked toweling off despite the gaze of our loitering cat. Upset and shaken by a fight with a friend, with our dog in our lap closely snuggled in our arms, we let the tears roll down our cheeks and confess to them where we went wrong.

We trust less conditionally in the bonds we share with animals. Unfettered by the judgments of others, in their silent presence we feel free to be ourselves. In place of solutions or answers to our questions, we gratefully welcome their quiet attention. Whether joining them in silence or relying on our words, we sense their regard for our thoughts and feelings. And we respond to our animals in kind.

This post is an excerpt from Chapter 1 of The Soul of All Living Creatures: What Animals Can Teach Us About Being Human (Crown, 2013).  If you're interested in learning more, please visit the book's website at http://www.randomhouse.com/book/203203/.

U.S. Pet Ownership & Demo- graphics Sourcebook Key Findings (Schaumburg, Ill.: Center for Information Management, American Veterinary Medical As- sociation, 2007), 1–2; Gauging Family Intimacy: A Social Trends Report (Washington, D.C.: Pew Research Center, 2006). 

Pet Owner Survey (Milton: Ontario Veterinary Medical Association, 2007). 

3 AAHA Pet Owners Survey (Lakewood, Colo.: American Animal Hospital Association, 2004). 

About the Author

Vint Virga, D.V.M.

Vint Virga, D.V.M., is a veterinarian in clinical practice specializing in behavioral medicine and the author of The Soul of All Living Creatures.

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