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Animal Behavior

The Human Animal Bond: Having Kids Makes a Difference

Your family’s structure may affect your relationship to your pet.

According to recent research, your emotional bond with your pet dog or cat changes over time. The nature of emotional response to your companion animal may also depend upon whether your family includes children or whether you are living in the city or in the country.

SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd
Source: SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd

Pet ownership is incredibly common in America, with over 60 percent of households claiming at least one pet. David Blouin, a cultural sociologist at Indiana University South Bend, has been studying the nature of our emotional connection to our pets. He observed that over the course of history, the way people interact with their pets has changed and this made him wonder what other factors make a difference in how people see their relationships with a pet.

To get an answer, Blouin assembled a research team that mailed surveys to 1,900 dog and cat owners in Indiana. Almost 600 people, 307 dog owners and 271 cat owners, responded.

One measure of how strong the bond is between people and their pets is their willingness to spend time, effort and money to care for their animal's well-being. The results showed that, for the most part, people really love their pets. Almost 93 percent of dog owners and 77 percent of cat owners took their animals to yearly veterinarian appointments. Less than 1 percent of dog owners and 4 percent of cat owners admitted to never taking their animals to the vet.

Another measure of our emotional attachment with a pet is how much time people spend interacting or socializing with them. Many pet owners have made such social contact an important part of their everyday routines. The research showed that pet owners report spending lots of time with their animals. Over 80 percent of dog owners and 67 percent of cat owners said they spent more than two hours a day interacting with their pet. All but a few percent of people spent at least some time with their pets each day.

The nature of your affiliation and feelings toward your pet also depends a good deal upon where you live. According to Blouin, "To think of pets as just another animal is not uncommon in rural areas which makes sense given utilitarian relationships people in rural areas are more likely to have with a range of different animals."

However, no matter where someone lives, having children often changes the owners' thoughts on their pets. Professor Blouin explains, "If you have kids, you have less time to spend with your pets. That's part of it, but not the whole story. People who think of their pets as their children often re-evaluate this thought when they have human children of their own."

Blouin links these new finding to some of his previous research where he found that there were three types of pet owners:

  • Dominionists, who are fond of their pets but view them primarily as useful animals, not companions
  • Humanists, who see their pets as practically human
  • Protectionists, who see animals as separate beings that humans have a responsibility to help and protect. This group includes many people who take in foster pets or volunteer to care for abandoned animals.

He found that people who live in rural areas tend to hold more Dominionist attitudes, while those in cities are slightly more likely to hold a Humanist view. He also found that people with children reported that their attitudes changed with the birth of their child. Before the birth, he said, people reported feeling like their pet was their child. After having a kid, they were less likely to hold that attitude.

However family structures tend to change over time, and kids do grow up and leave the household. The good news for canine and feline companions is that the less-sentimental view toward pets that began when the children arrived tends to shift back after the kids grow up. Empty nesters often reported that relationships with their pets were stronger after the children left the house.

Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: The Modern Dog, Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History, How Dogs Think, How To Speak Dog, Why We Love the Dogs We Do, What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs, Why Does My Dog Act That Way? Understanding Dogs for Dummies, Sleep Thieves, The Left-hander Syndrome

Copyright SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd. May not be reprinted or reposted without permission.

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