How do our pets interpret our feelings

Why we love pets

Wilson acknowledged, however, that our interest in animals also depends on our personal and cultural experiences. For example, dogs are very popular in western countries, whereas in traditional Islamic societies they are considered unclean.

In 2013, researchers led by behavioral scientist Stefano Ghirlanda from Brooklyn College in New York analyzed the fluctuating popularity of dog breeds recorded by the American Kennel Club, the largest umbrella association of pedigree dog breeders in the USA, from 1926 to 2005. There was no connection to health, longevity or behavioral characteristics such as aggressiveness or the ability to learn. On the contrary, the trend in dog breeds turned out to be completely unpredictable. A year later, the researchers described that films can bring certain dog breeds up to a ten-year high in popularity: A Labrador Retriever played the leading role in the 1963 US film "The Incredible Journey" - and the American Kennel Club then registered for the decade an average of 2223 Labradors bred annually; in the previous decade it was only 542 per year.

Since the same can be observed in other animal species, the psychologist who was involved in the studies, Harold Herzog of Western Carolina University, posits that some people only keep pets because others do too - a prime example of our tendency to imitate. As typical for this, he mentions the briefly flaring enthusiasm for turtles in the USA or for koi in Japan.

Regardless, however, most people affirm that what they appreciate most about their pets is the company. In fact, many human-animal relationships are reminiscent of interpersonal ties: in 2014, researchers working with neuropsychologist Luke Stoeckel from Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston used functional magnetic resonance imaging to measure the brain activity of 14 mothers who looked at photos of children or dogs - either of their own or of them strange. When looking at the human and animal family members, the brain activity patterns were similar, but they differed significantly from those with strange people or animals as counterparts. As a result, pets appear to evoke maternal feelings and may satisfy the human need to care for other living beings.

Conversely, an animal can also take on the role of consolation giver. In the 1960s, child psychologist Boris Levinson of Yeshiva University in New York noticed that inhibited children became talkative when he brought his dog jingles into therapy sessions. This observation sparked a number of studies into whether pets have a positive impact on human wellbeing. As the University of Pennsylvania biologist Erika Friedmann observed in 1980, pet owners were more likely to be alive a year after a heart attack than petless patients. Friedmann concluded that animals act as a kind of stress buffer. However, these results could not be clearly replicated; and it has been criticized that animal-assisted therapies developed on the basis of Levinson's work would overestimate the positive effects of animals in the treatment of mental illnesses.

Nonetheless, many people feel empowered by their pets and keep them for this very reason. In 2012, the psychologist Sigal Zilcha-Mano, then at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya in Israel, and her colleagues asked 285 cat or dog owners to fill out a questionnaire to measure the emotional bond with their housemates. Then 120 of these pet owners took a demanding language test. As the blood pressure recorded as a stress indicator revealed, the test subjects who were accompanied by their pets or who had thought of them before the test turned out to be less stressed than those without contact with their pets. The extent of this effect, however, depended on how strongly the respective person was attached to their animal roommate. The degree of emotional support therefore results from how close a keeper feels to his animal.