Blog & Editorial

Anthropomorphism: when we love our pets too much

Anthropomorphism consists in attributing human emotions to animals. For example, some will believe that when they are sick or sad, their cat will lay on their lap because he feels compassionate. The wrongful interpretation of a behavior is the cause of several problems. In fact, some people will reject any explanation that differs from their beliefs, and most of the time, they pretend that their cat feels the same emotions and feelings as they do.

I call these people “anthropomorphers”. This is not meant to be contemptible, far from it. Most of them are generous and very kind, and they take great care of their pets. Sometimes, they will even refrain from traveling, for they cannot bear the idea that their cat might miss them. In other words, anthropomorphers will often deprive themselves of the pleasures of life because of the false perceptions they have regarding the emotions and feelings of their pet. Besides, the media are the champions of anthropomorphism. They very often propagate anthropomorphic myths on animals. What better headline story than the heroic action of a cat that saved a child from a dog attack, or the cat who woke his owners to save them from a fire?

Since this is a very sensitive issue, I will choose my words very carefully to broach such a thorny topic that might upset a lot of readers. However, it is very likely that this entry will allow you to have a much healthier relationship with your animal. 


Cats and jealousy

Let’s take the most common example of anthropomorphism: “My cat is jealous of my new partner, because he peed on his/her side of the bed.”

In reality, the cat is anxious about the changes that this new individual created in the home, simple as that. Generally, people understand the logic behind the explanation of such a behavior. So far, so good. 

 

Cats and grief

Let’s take another common anthropomorphism. I am sorry to disappoint you, but cats do not feel grief. In fact, if they feel emotional distress or if they appear to be searching for the deceased for a few days, it is because they have lost their “routine guide”, and they lost a presence to which they were used and made them feel safe. They will need to establish a new routine and find security differently. That being said, it is true that the cat will pace around his territory meowing, seeking for the other cat. However, he will not miss the departed; he is simply checking whether he can claim some rights that were previously detained by the other cat. He wishes to ascertain that he will not create problems by claiming them. In order to do so, he must be positive that the other cat is gone.

Here again, everything’s fine. Most people accept this logical explanation, even if some will find cause to argue. Let’s get to the next point.

 

The cat that lets himself die for the love of his deceased owner

Unfortunately, here, love in the literal sense is not in cause. My explanation is much more down-to-earth. Some cats suffering from separation anxiety do not have neither the maturity nor the emotional control that are necessary to develop a new routine in the absence of a person they have lived with for many years. This is in fact extremely rare, but if it only happens once, it’s enough for the story to be headlined. Yet, in reality, thousand of persons die every day and their cat does not get so upset. It is too bad, but it is just so.

That brings us to the debunking of the number one anthropomorphism that many refuse to see as anthropomorphism.

 

Cats and love

The definition we give to a feeling can influence our understanding of the reality. Let me explain. First, let us recall that a cat will adopt a behavior only if said behavior will reward him in some way.  Here, we are not only talking about food or treats, for our personality too can appeal to our cat. For example, the attachment of my cat Kira, who does not much like to be petted and who lives mainly by evening and night, is stronger towards me than towards Josine, my partner. I am a night bird whereas my partner goes to bed at 8pm. I am also less touchy-feely than her with our cats. Kira thus prefers to be close to me than to Josine, because my personality suits her better.

It is so with us, humans, too. If we are in a relationship, it is because the presence, the tastes and the personality of our loved one reward us somehow, isn’t it? The same goes for the cat. So, if this is how we define love, yes, a cat does love. But we know that love is more than that! And that is where the difference between humans and animals lies. Hence, a cat does not have the capacity to love. He only answers to his primary need to obtain something. I can hear the “anthropomorphers” thinking:

“Nobody knows what goes on in the mind of a cat.” Well, yes, it is true that we cannot know what goes on in the mind of our pets. Besides, as a good behaviorist, I have learned never to attempt it, for any explanation would be subjective. It is better to try to understand what motivates the animal to act in such a way, then to analyze the gestures he displays in the presence of that stimulus.

HOWEVER, it is by using this method of analysis that ethologists can explain the emotional reactions and the actions of animals. If the animal reacts in a given way to a stimulus, he will isolate all possible variants and motivation sources, replacing them with other similar stimuli, or changing only one element at the time. The process is often long and arduous, for many factors have to be isolated. At times, this imply that an individual be isolated as soon as his birth in order to determine if a given behavior is innate, for example. Ethology (the science of animal behavior) is a rather recent science and the majority of related studies date back only from the 90s. That is why we must be careful when we talk about animal feelings, for, not so long ago, we believed that animals were unable to feel anything. Yet, today, studies have shown that the vast majority is able to feel some basic emotions such as joy, anger, frustration, etc. Even if there is still much ground to cover to understand animals, research is extended enough to allow us a good understanding of what stimulates the animal to react in a logical, emotional or instinctive way.

 

Denial

I once saw a woman leave in the middle of a conference because I suddenly became a quack in her eyes when I tried to explain why cats do not love in the literal sense of the word. Try as I may to explain logically, she would not accept the facts. I regret that, very often, the “anthropomorpher” will reject the given explanation that will shatter the anthropomorphic assumption of a specific behavior, even if said explanation is based on scientific ethological studies. Why? Well, I am a feline behaviorist, not a human psychologist. So I asked psychologist Jack DeStephano, author and lecturer, to give me his scientific interpretation of anthropomorphism, so that I would better understand why some people will resort to my services, but end up preferring their own interpretation of the situation they experience with their animal to my professional opinion. According to Dr. DeStephano, “Studies have shown that the vast majority of people who adopt an animal do so to fill a more or less conscious emotional void. Although several reasons motivate their decision and although the adoption is very often profitable (to both the animal and the person), it is the need to be loved that is the most frequent reason for doing so. Loving is risky, because it needs to be reciprocated. If we cannot get all the love we wish for from the people around us, the animal will fill that void. I am not speaking of a pathological need, but rather of a more or less important need that we all feel and that the animal will fulfill. Moreover, the love of an animal entails no risk. He cannot leave us, cheat on us or betray us. Is this not ideal love?”

How, then, can we understand that a client refuses to listen to the professional he/she recruited himself/herself to correct a behavior while the cause of the behavior is something the person is doing wrong because of an anthropomorphic interpretation? “When an animal behaviorist informs “anthropomorphers” that this so comforting love is not a real love, the majority of them will simply choose to reject the explanation to protect themselves emotionally, and some of them will refuse to listen to our explanations, because they fear that these scientific proofs wreck their emotional nest, which is so comfortable. After all, why owning a cat if his love is not real?” he concludes. 

 

I am an ex-“anthropomorpher”

When I met my partner more than twelve years ago, we were both professional “anthropomorphers” J.

Besides, our somewhat oversized love for cats is one of the reasons we started dating. Yes, we too, would not travel for more than 3 consecutive days, because we had 4 cats in total (we each owned two). When I started taking courses in behavior and ethology, we had no choice but to “break down” our anthropomorphic conception. In the light of the knowledge we have today, we do not love our cats any less! Quite the opposite! They bring us as much happiness as before. It might be hard to understand, but our knowing they love us mainly because we reward them doesn’t change the nature of our relationship. We know that when they come to us, it is to be petted, get a treat, or get some room on the couch. Thanks to the notions we learned as part of our profession, we understand all the manipulative methods they use to charm us in order to get something. In spite of all this, we still sit on the floor when our cats occupy the couches, and we still give in when one of them comes to purr on our lap when we are sick or sad. We know they do so firstly for themselves, but, in the end, it soothes us anyway. It changed nothing to our relationship, except that now, we allow ourselves to take 2 weeks vacations and we no longer worry for our cats when one of them passes.

Now that we are no longer “anthropomorphers”, our relationship with our cats is much healthier, and we are also more balanced persons and we still live as many happy moments with our whiskered friends. Try it: you will see that it feels good. Oh, by the way, after all… our own cats… they an exception to the rule… they do love us 

 

Daniel Filion  

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