Anthropomorphism : when we see our animals as humans
Anthropomorphism is attributing human reactions and feelings to animals. For example, some believe their cat acts out of revenge or feels guilty when it’s caught or scolded after doing something forbidden. The misinterpretation of a behaviour greatly hampers its resolution, because it influences the actions taken by the adopters. Indeed, by attributing human feelings and reasoning to felines, some people manage issues and educate their cats as they would a human child. However, these methods are to be avoided because they are ineffective in addition to not respecting the animal’s nature, which leads to further difficulties in cohabitation.
These anthropomorphist people are, for the most part, well intentioned and watch over the welfare of their animal. They even go as far as to deprive themselves because of misinterpretations.
Moreover, some media are champions of anthropomorphism and promote numerous myths. What better way to make the news than to broadcast a video in which the cat is a hero protecting a child from a dog attack? And what about anecdotes featuring the family cat alerting the household of a nighttime fire to save them?
Of course, I realize that this is a very delicate subject that could upset some of you. However, I hope that this editorial will allow you to have a healthier relationship with your animal and appreciate if further for what it really is.
Cats and jealousy
Let’s look into the most frequent case of anthropomorphism we witness: « My cat pees on the bed where my new partner sleeps. It’s jealous because I’ve been caring less for it since this new person came into my life. »
In fact, the cat is anxious because of the changes this new individual has brought into the house, quite simply. People generally understand the logic of this explanation. So far, so good.
Cats and mourning
I’m sorry to disappoint you, but cats don’t feel mourning in the sense of being aware of the death of an individual. In fact, if cats feel emotional distress of looks for the deceased individual for a few days, it’s because they are experiencing disturbances in their environment and daily life. They must establish a new routine to take these changes into account. That said, it is true that cats wander their environment meowing and looking for the deceased. However, they probably seek to find balance and reclaim resources that were previously shared. Finally, we must ask ourselves what information cats have access to before thinking they are going through the stages of grief. Are they really aware of what death is?
Here again, everything is fine. Most people accept this logical explanation, although some argue. Let’s move on to the next myth.
The cat who lets itself die out of love for its deceased owner
Some cats suffering from veterinarian-diagnosed anxiety disorders lack the maturity and emotional control necessary to develop new habits in the absence of a person they spent their life with. These cases are rare but need only happen once for the story to make headlines. Yet, in reality, thousands of people die every day and their cats don’t really care.
This anthropomorphism is much more difficult to accept for many.
Cats and love
Our definition of a feeling can influence our understanding of reality. What is love?
First, let us remember that a cat will only adopt a behaviour if it gets something out of it. Here, we are not just talking about food or treats, because our personality can also please our cat. For example, the affection of my cat Kira, who doesn’t much like caresses and mainly lives at night, is stronger towards me than my partner Josine. I’m a night owl, while my girlfriend goes to bed at 8 pm. Also, I tend to pet cats less than Josine does. Kira prefers to be close to me than to Josine, because my way of being suits her better.
The same goes for us as well, humans. If we are in a relationship, it’s because the presence, tastes and personality of our partner brings us something, right? Ditto for the cat. If we define love as that, then yes, cats love. But love, in the human sense of the term, is much more than that! The domestic cat doesn’t have the capacity to love as humans love their children, their spouse, their parents, etc. The cat fulfills its primary needs and seeks to gain resources.
I hear the « anthropomorphers » thinking: « Nobody knows that goes on it’s a cat’s head. » That’s right. As the good consultant that I am, I learned to never try to do it, for the sake of objectivity. It is more accurate to try to understand what motivates the animal to express and repeat its behaviours.
It is through this method of rigorous analysis that ethologists can explain the emotional reactions and actions of animals. If an animal reacts a certain way to a stimulus, behavioural biologists establish complex experimental analyses to target and understand the motives behind the observed behaviour. The process is often long and tenuous, as several parameters need to be taken into consideration. For example, an individual may have to be isolated from birth to determine if a behaviour is innate.
Ethology or the science of animal behaviour is a relatively recent science. That’s why we need to be careful when talking about feelings in animals. Not so long ago, humans were believed to have a monopoly on emotions. Today’s scientific literature indicates that many species can experience joy, anger, frustration, etc. Although much work remains to be done in ethology, research has sufficiently advanced to allow us to better understand the emotional experience and cognitive abilities of many species.
A few years ago, during a conference, a lady stormed out of the room when I explained that cats don’t love us in the human sense of the word. I deplore the fact that many people refuse to question their anthropomorphic opinions, even if we base our justifications on recent scientific findings in behavioural biology. Why is this so?
Since I study the behaviour of cats and not that of humans, I sought the help of psychologist Jack De Stephano, author and lecturer. I asked him to explain the phenomenon of anthropomorphism so that I could better understand the people who use my services. According to him, many reasons justify the desire to adopt a pet. For many, the pet fills a more of less conscious emotional void. In other words, it fills a need for love. « We are not talking about a pathological need for love, but rather a void that we all have. An animal’s love carries no risk. It can’t leave us, deceive us or betray us. Is this not the ideal love? »
So, how to understand that a client refuses to listen to the professional they have hired to help them modify the undesirable behaviour of their pet? Especially when this behaviour is caused by human actions resulting from an erroneous anthropomorphic interpretation? « When an animal behaviour professional informs a client that the reassuring love their animal provides them with is not love in the human sense of the term, some choose to refuse the explanation altogether, to protect themselves emotionally. After all, why have a cat if its love isn’t real? », he concludes.
I am an ex « anthropomorpher »
When I met my partner over twelve years ago, we were both professional « anthropomorphers ». Our somewhat over the top love of cats is one of the reasons we started dating. Yes, we also did not take vacations for more than three consecutive days, because we had four cats. When I started taking courses in behaviour and ethology, we had no choice but to rethink our anthropomorphic conceptions.
In the light of the knowledge we have today, we don’t like our cats any less! On the contrary! They bring us as much happiness as before. It may be difficult to understand, but even if we know that they love us mainly because we bring them something, it doesn’t change the nature of our relationship. We know that they come to us to be caressed, to get a treat or for a spot on the couch. Thanks to the notions we have learned in the context of our profession, we understand the manipulation methods they use to « charm » us into getting something. Even so, we still sit on the floor when the couches are used by our cats and we melt on the inside when one of them comes purring on us when we are sick or sad. We know they do it for themselves first, but at the end of the day it feels good. Nothing has changed in our relationship, besides the fact that we now allow ourselves to go on vacation for two weeks and we don’t worry for our other cats when one of them dies.
Since we stopped being « anthropomorphers », our relationship with our cats is much healthier. We are more balanced and continue to get as much happiness from our whiskered friends. Try it, you’ll see how good it feels!
Besides, despite all that I said, our cats are special… they do love us!
President, Cat Educator