Pets, the fulcrum of shared affection

Last Updated 17 March 2011, 16:39 IST

First, he tore up his dog toys. Then shredded the furniture, clothes, schoolbooks — and, finally, any semblance of family unity. James, a chocolate-brown pointer mix, turned from adorable pet to problem child in a matter of weeks.

“The big bone of contention was that my mom and my sister thought that he was too smart to be treated like a dog; they thought he was a person and should be treated as such — well, spoiled,” said Danielle, a Florida woman who asked that her last name not be published to avoid more family pet strife. “The dog remains to this day, 10 years later, a source of contention and anger.”

Psychologists long ago confirmed what most pet owners feel in their bones: that for some people bonds with animals are every bit as strong as those with other humans. And less complicated, for sure; a dog’s devotion is without detectable irony, a lap cat’s purring without artifice (if not disapproval).

Yet the nature of individual human-pet relationships varies widely, and only now are scientists beginning to characterise those differences, and their impact on the family. Pets alter not only a family’s routines, after all, but also its hierarchy, its social rhythm, its web of relationships. Several new lines of research help explain why this overall effect can be so comforting in some families, and a source of tension in others. The answers have very little to do with the pet.


“The word ‘pet’ does not really capture what these animals mean in a family, first of all,” said Froma Walsh, a psychologist at the University of Chicago and co-director of the Chicago centre for family health. The prevalent term among researchers is now ‘companion animal’, she said, which is closer to the childlike role they so often play.

“And in the way that children get caught up in the family system as peacekeepers, as go-betweens, as sources of disagreement, the same happens with pets.”

People cast these roles in part based on the sensations and memories associated with their first Princess or Scooter, psychologists say — echoing Freud’s idea of transference, in which early relationships provide a template for later ones. In many families, this means that Scruffy is the universal peacemaker, the fulcrum of shared affection.

In a family interview reviewed by Walsh in a recent paper, one mother said that the best way to end an argument between siblings was to bark, “Stop fighting, you’re upsetting Barkley!” “This is always more effective than saying, ‘Stop hitting your brother,”’ the mother said. (Barkley made no comment.)

Animals often sense these expectations and act on them. In a video recording of another family discussed in the paper, the cat jumps on a woman’s lap when it senses an impending argument with her husband. “And it works,” Walsh said. “It reduces tension in both; you can see it happening.”

“She’s my first child,” said Adrienne Woods, a cellist in Los Angeles, of Bella, the Husky puppy she and her fiance just got. “The biggest upside is this sense of inner peace. I feel like a grandma, like I have a companion I’ve been wanting for 30 years.”

Yet pets can also raise tension, as millions of couples learn the hard way. The Animal Planet show ‘It’s Me or the Dog’ is built on such cases. And Cesar Millan, a dog behaviour specialist, has become a celebrity by helping people gain control over unruly hounds, bringing order into households with uncertain lines of authority.

Perhaps more often, pets become a psychological wedge not from lack of boundaries but because family members have diverging views of what a pet should be. And those views are shaped by cultural inheritance, more so than people may realise.

In a study of dog ownership, Elizabeth Terrien, a sociologist at the University of Chicago, conducted 90 in-depth interviews with families in Los Angeles, including Woods. One clear trend that has emerged is that people from rural backgrounds tend to see their dogs as guardians to be kept outside, whereas middle-class couples typically treat their hounds as children, often having them sleep in the master bedroom, or a special bed.

When asked to describe their pets without using the word ‘dog’, people in more affluent neighbourhoods “came up with things like child, companion, little friend, teenage son, brother, or partner in crime,” Terrien said.

Such differences often emerge only after a family has adopted a pet, and they can exacerbate the more mundane disagreements about pet care, like how much to spend on vet bills, how often to walk the dog, how the animal should interact with young children. The fallout from such conflicts isn’t hard to find: Most everyone knows of couples who have quarrelled over pets, or even divorced, because her spaniel nipped at his Rottweiler.

The reason these feelings run so deep is that they are ideologies, as well as cultural and psychological dispositions. In summer 2007, David Blouin, a sociologist at Indiana University, conducted extensive interviews with 35 dog owners around the state, chosen to represent a diverse mix of city, country and suburban dwellers.

He found that, as a rule, people fall into one of three broad categories of beliefs concerning pets. Members of one group, which he labels ‘dominionists’, see pets as an appendage to the family, a useful helper ranking below humans that is beloved but, ultimately, replaceable. Many people from rural areas — like the immigrants Terrien interviewed — qualified.


Another group of owners, labelled by Blouin as ‘humanists’, are the type who cherish their dog as a favoured child or primary companion, to be pampered, allowed into bed, and mourned like a dying child at the end. These include the people who cook special meals for a pet, take it to exercise classes, to therapy — or leave it stock options in their will.

The third, called ‘protectionists’, strive to be the animal’s advocate. These owners have strong views about animal welfare, but their views on how a pet should be treated — whether it sleeps inside or outside, when it should be put down — vary depending on what they think is ‘best’ for the animal.

Up until, and including, the end: Couples may not only disagree over when to put an animal down but also have vastly different emotional reactions to the loss. “For someone who’s been treating the pet like a child, it can feel like the loss of a child — and of course children are not supposed to die before their parents,” Terrien said. It’s an end-of-life crisis, which often begins a lengthy period of grieving. Whereas for the partner who sees the pet differently, the death may bring relief.

None of which is to say that a resourceful pet — using the combined power of cuteness, doleful stares and episodes of getting stuck in boxes or eating crayons — cannot bridge such opposing religions. But family therapists say that, usually, four-legged diplomats need some help from the two-legged kind to succeed.

“Families either figure it out and manage these differences,” Terrien said, “or they give up the pet — which happens far more often than people think.”

(Published 17 March 2011, 16:39 IST)

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