Whether animals can experience romantic love is unknown. But there is some evidence that they are capable of experiencing the same range of emotions as we can. The brains of many mammals are surprisingly similar to the human brain.
Take as an example the brain of a cat. A cat’s brain is small compared to ours, occupying only about one percent of their body mass compared to about two percent in an average human. But size doesn't always matter. Neanderthals, the hominids that went extinct more than twenty thousand years ago, had bigger brains than Homo sapiens, but they probably weren’t smarter than the Homo sapiens that beat them in the survival game. Surface folding and brain structure matter more than brain size. The brains of cats have an amazing surface folding and a structure that is about ninety percent similar to ours. This suggests that they could indeed be capable of experiencing romantic love. But we will probably never know for sure.
There is one thing we do know: Your dog or cat doesn’t regard you merely as a food dispenser. Pets as well as zoo animals form strong attachments to their caregivers. As attachment is a form of love, animals are indeed capable of loving their caregivers.
Dogs have been reported to love their masters so deeply that they mourn their death for many years. Such was the case of Greyfriars Bobby, a Skye terrier in Edinburgh, Scotland. He served as Constable John Gray’s companion, until Gray’s death in 1858. After Gray’s funeral, Bobby was spotted sitting on top of his master’s grave in Greyfriars Kirkyard. The loyal police hound is reported to have spent every night at his master’s grave until his death fourteen years later.
The attachment of dogs to their owners has been confirmed in a study conducted by Daniel Mills, a British specialist in clinical animal behavior. The study used an adaptation of Ainsworth’s strange situation paradigm, in which the researchers observed the reaction of dogs and cats in response to their owners and strangers. He found that securely attached dogs tended to behave similarly to infants when their owners left, whereas cats tended not to do that. If anything, cats tended to have more of an avoidant attachment style, often ignoring their owners and happily greeting strangers.
These results, of course, do not show that cats are incapable of attachment. While cats no doubt tend to have a more avoidant attachment style than dogs, most of us know from anecdotal evidence that there can be enormous differences in how attached cats are to their owners. My own two cats, Bertrand Russell and Roderick Chisholm (named after philosophers like my other cats) are undoubtedly anxiously attached, clinging tenaciously to me to the point of annoyance.
While it seems relatively uncontroversial that dogs can be attached to their owners, and that the owners assume the role of caregiver, there is also evidence that dogs can temporarily take over the role of caregiver. Dogs seem to be attuned to the emotions of their owners and are able to act as a loyal companion in times of need.
In a study published in the September 2012 issue of Animal Cognition, University of London researchers found that dogs were more inclined to approach a crying person than someone who was talking or humming, and that they responded to crying with submissive behavior. According to the researchers, this contrast indicates that the dogs’ response to weeping wasn’t simply the result of curiosity but was based on a primitive understanding of human distress. These findings indicate that when a dog comforts his sorrowful owner, the caregiver-recipient roles are sometimes reversed. The dog temporarily becomes the caregiver, which suggests a more sophisticated attachment pattern in dogs than in infants.
These results have also been confirmed with brain scans. Gregory Berns, a neuroscientist at Emory University, used fMRI neuroimaging to test the brains of dogs. This is not simple feat. fMRI scans only work if the participants lie completely still, which dogs normally aren’t capable of. However, Berns trained his dogs to lie still in the tight compartment of the scanner, which made the brain imaging feasible. The results were astonishing. Berns’ lab team found increased activity in regions of their brain associated with attachment, empathy and a theory of mind in response to their owners. A theory of mind is a belief system about what others think and want that is continually updated. So, dogs apparently wonder what their owners are thinking about.
Animals also seem capable of experiencing attachment love for each other. The awe-inspiring story of Tika and Kobuk, two malamutes who had been companions for years, testifies to this. Together the two dogs had bred and raised eight litters of puppies. But Kobuk was a bit of a bully. He would eat Tika’s food and shove her away if he got the chance. He would also attempt to steal away any attention people gave her. But the bullying came to a complete hold when Tika developed cancer in her leg. Kobuk’s behavior changed entirely. He let Tika sleep on the bed, while he rested on the floor. He groomed her face and neck and would not leave her side. Tika’s leg eventually had to be amputated. In the beginning it was quite a challenge for Tika to walk on three legs. When she stumbled and fell Kobuk would try to help her. He even saved Tika’s life when she was going into shock during her recovery from the amputation. Kobuk was barking to wake up the owner, who rushed Tika to the hospital. Thanks to Kobuk’s attention and love, Tika survived. Kobuk continued to care for Tika while she was still recovering. But once Tika had fully recovered and had learned to walk on three legs, Kobuk was back to his old behavior.
Animals also sometimes form attachment relationships with members of other non-human species. The BBC documentary Animal Odd Couples features several unusual attachment relationships, among others that between Anthony, a giant lion, and Riley, a little coyote. When Anthony and Riley were brought to “Keepers of the Wild” animal sanctuary, they were only about a month old. They immediately bonded. They enjoyed playing and grooming each other. When they arrived at the sanctuary, they were the same size but that quickly changed. The lion rapidly outgrew the little coyote. Despite their extremely different physique, their early bond continued into adulthood.
Attachment love is not restricted to mammals. In his book Mind of the Raven biologist Bernd Heinrich argues that since ravens have long-term mates, they must feel a form of attachment for each other. Otherwise it is difficult to explain what keeps the couple together for a lifetime.
Although not all birds mate for life, many do. Brant geese are no exception. The BBC documentary features a male Brant goose who has chosen a forty-five-year-old female Aldabra tortoise as his soul mate. He chases away anyone who tries to get near her, ensuring that she gets to eat her crisp lettuce without any interference. The hefty female tortoise contently puts up with his protection and care, in fact she truly seems to enjoy it. A truly kooky couple.