PETS; THE GREATEST LOVE OF ALL?
“It’s a love like no other – one that has transcended time. But why exactly do humans love their pets often more than they love each other?”
So, here I am. It’s been a while since I last put finger to keyboard. How are you today?
If I’m perfectly honest, I think I may have slightly overdone it in the build up to PSYCHOSIS and beyond. And it wasn’t just the promotional activity, but my fear of not being able to keep up the writing streak pushed me into retaining the 03:30 writing schedule and lay down the first 30,000 on my next novel without a day’s break.
The result, once PSYCHOSIS was released on June 30th and being read, I withdrew from anything and everything in favour of a hedonistic food tour that, if I’m perfectly honest, I don’t think has quite ended with Michelin Man-styled consequences.
Although, Autumn is just around the corner and with some book events on the horizon, I guess I’m going to have to get back into my routine, onto the treadmill and back to eating gruel!
Oh well. At least I had Tommy to see me through it. No, he’s not my lover, but my cat.
While I was languishing in my pit, he was always there and there was nothing more comforting than feeling the silky fluffiness of his fur beneath my fingers or the reassuring melody of his purring. Instantly reassured, relaxed.
What’s up with that? He’s just a cat. A pet. Right? How on earth can a creature, that doesn’t even speak my language have such a profound and powerful effect on me?
Well, it turns out that there are a variety of reasons why we adore our furry friends more than often more than we do our fellow human beings. A statement that probably should yet most likely will not shock most. And there’s a reason for that. In a society where most have become desensitised and somewhat jaded by man’s tragic quest to find new and creative way of inflicting pain and or death on fellow man and have this immortalise by a myriad of voyeuristic devices so that it can be shared and reshared thousands of times on social media, is it any wonder that we would turn to another species to seek, express and receive affection?
Humans have always had an affinity with animals. One that was most likely born out of the need for mutual survival with each working with and protecting the other eventually resulting in the actual domestication of some of the earth’s most ferocious animals. Yes, many of us tend to forget that two of our most popular pets of today (canines and felines – dogs and cats) are actually the descendants of skilled and vicious pack hunters. Sadly, some of us reminded of this from time, often with tragic consequences.
Regardless, our love affair with cats and dogs dates as far back as ancient times. One of the earliest pieces of evidence of the relationship between man and dog dates back to c.10000 BC – a puppy is found buried cradled in the arms of a human in the land we now know as Israel. It’s believed that humans domesticated Asian Wolves some 2000 years earlier. c.7500 BC – A cat, resembling an African wildcat, is found buried with a human on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus. This early evidence suggests that cats may have been first domesticated in the Fertile Crescent (where the African and Eurasian continents meet) and later brought as pets to Cyprus and Egypt. c.3000 BC – Ancient Egyptian paintings depict house cats in homes, presumably to hunt mice as Egyptians are believed to have invented the idea of storing grain indoors. And, as you may know, cats were sacred in Egypt. This has been iconised in many statues. And around AD 168–190 – Chinese Emperor Ling Ti is believed to have loved his dogs so much, he gave them ranks of senior court officials thus allowing them to eat the finest foods, sleep on oriental rugs and even enjoy their own special bodyguards.
Yes, our obsession with our pets transcends time. Oh, sorry. I just realised that I used the terms pet – believed to date back to the 16th Century meaning domesticated animal – what I meant to say was “Companion Animal”. Similarly, I should not be referred to as Tommy’s owner (or father) but his “Human Carer”.
What am I on about?
Well, apparently, some academics want us to stop using the term ‘pet’ for our, well, pets, because they believe that is ‘demeaning’.
Um, I’m Sorry. What? Demeaning?
Anyway, you can imagine how awful I felt knowing that the tentacles of that overused negative word had managed to reach out and tarnish my relationship with my cat. So, naturally, like any good human carer, I sat Tommy down this morning and asked him if he felt that the term pet was demeaning to him. He blinked at me for a few seconds. Then, after yawning, he mewed that he found the fact that I referred to him as “my baby” much more demeaning. Then, he turned lifted his fluffy tail into the air and promptly chased a fly around the room.
So, how has the greatest love of all transcended millennia?
Well, for that reason; it is the greatest love. Studies have found that one of the reasons why we love our pets (yes, sorry, that word again) so much and why the feeling is more than often mutual is the same reason why humans bask in the giddiness of laying our eyes on the object of our affection, that good old favourite hormone that, if you’ve read other posts to this blog or COMING UP FOR AIR , you’ll know all about by now; Oxytocin. Apparently, our brain is flooded with this hormone (also known as the love or snuggle hormone) when we gaze adoringly at our beloved pets the same way it does when we clap eyes on and or are touched by our human loved ones. Most interesting is that research has revealed that the oxytocin spike that occurs in our brain when we see our beloved pets also occurs when they see us.
Yes, as odd as it may sound. We literally fall in love with our pets in the same we love our children. Another reason why many of us refer to our pets as our babies.
This is consistent with the fact that the relationship between pets and childless couples is often more intense. Similarly, when that same couple goes on to have human babies, that relationship wains in the parents yet its intensity is passed onto their child for the pet is then viewed as (it pains me to say it) a human companion. A trusty friend who’ll always be by their side no matter how they’re feeling. And, in the absence of any other meaningful relationship, this dynamic follows that child into adulthood, often spawning that caricature of the cat lady (or man for that matter).
Of course, the paths differ. Cat ladies aren’t just loners who have failed to snare their significant others, but they’re often the by-products of negative, unhealthy relationships with humans. They’ve often been hurt by, are distrustful of the human relationship factor and instead have turned to the one thing that truly makes the relationship between us and our pets the greatest of them all.
Our pets know nothing of nor care about our colour, gender, creed, nor our handicaps or beauty. They take us for who we truly are. Accepting our affections (well, at least most of the time) and actively welcoming our love, be that by their energetic bouncing, tail wagging, purring, or by exposing their most vulnerable side, a furry belly. Our expression of love is rarely spurned nor is accepted, subject to preconceived assumption, animosity or resentment born out of bad memories or experiences, such as bad food or failure to walk or clean their litter tray regularly. Our pets are just with us here in the here and now, allowing us to receive and express love freely, free from the restraint of human cognition.
Of course, there are always exceptions, but most human relationships will have natural blocks to this free love enterprise born from life experiences or even maybe because some of us are conditioned to believe that giving love is much more socially acceptable than receiving it. This is probably where we could take a leaf out the stereotypically narcissistic trait of cats of receiving and taking affection at times that suit them more than they’re human counterparts. Say, for example, when you’re trying to meet a deadline and they decided to make an impromptu runway of your keyboard. Yet, interestingly, we’re much more likely to see this as endearing than annoying. Can you imagine our reaction if a human did this? (putting to one side the comical visual of a human attempting to that for one second).
Whatever you may think and whichever your preference, our pets, especially cats, havebeen proven to be very good for us. Not just mentally, but physically. You probably already know how the presence of pets in some hospitals and care homes around the world has proved highly conducive to healing, relieving pain. What you may not know is that a 10-year study found that cat owners are less likely to die of heart attacks when, in comparison, 40% of those people who had never owned a cat were more likely to die from heart attack, 30% from cardiovascular diseases. Other studies have found that the presence of cats can actually help to lower blood pressure and reduce stress by encouraging the release of dopamine and serotonin.
Yes, there’s much more to our furry companions than their cuteness. I’ve realised this over the past year where my kitten became not just a cat, a pet, but my companion. Writing is a very solitary process and, generally, that’s exactly how us writers like it, but I’ve learned over the past year that Tommy is not just my cat, but my companion at times where interaction with humans is not only impractical but unproductive. He, on the other hand, beyond his basic needs is always nearby for a quick cuddle, a boost of unfettered affection before we part ways so that I may return to work and him to the all-important task of napping.
I’ve learned now, more than ever, why, when someone loses a pet, it’s probably best to avoid hurtful and dismissive phrases, such as “It’s just a dog/cat” or “It was only a pet.” To some, that’s the equivalent of saying, “it was only your child.”
A phrase that, to be perfectly honest, has popped into my head a few times over the years yet, thankfully, tactful me purposefully suppressed it until a year ago when I got my own ‘babies’ and am now perfectly able to truly appreciate the bond between us humans and our pets. Although, I should say, for the record, that my thoughts were most likely born out of the fact that (again, if you’ve read COMING UP FOR AIR you’ll already know), I spent most of my teenage years on a farm in rural southern Italy. On that farm, most of the animals were ‘working animals’, not pets. Dogs were guards and sheep herders and the cats weren’t served poncey ‘morsels of chicken or fish in a delicious gravy’ but had to fend pretty much for themselves, eat anything and everything available to them, not least the legion of mice that also resided at the place.
Most of the animals were there for a purpose and not for companionship. When one died, it was replaced, as a business would fill a vacancy.
Ultimately, how we feel and view our pets tends to be dependent on our culture. For example, you won’t be surprised to learn that China, Japan, Korea and several other countries eat dog and cat meat as a standard staple (as horrifying as that notion is to many of us). You will be surprised to learn that even us Brits have partaken in the odd cat meat dish. Admittedly, that was back in the 18th Century. Anyway, moving on swiftly…
So, with so much love. Why is it that some of us love our cute pets to death like love-stricken psychopaths, spouting, with teeth-clenching creepiness in a voice several octaves higher than our own, phrases like, “I love you so much I want to squish you” or “You’re so gorgeous, I want to eat you!” as well as the now famous “it’s so fluffy, I’m gonna die!” Hardly terms of endearment, right?
Well, Cute Aggression, as it’s known, is quite common. Yes, there have been several studies conducted on this very thing. It’s what’s also known as cuteness overload. While we don’t have an actual scientific explanation, it’s believed that our reaction to cuteness overload is actually frustration at our inability to care enough for the cute object of our affections and thus we react with – thankfully- restrained aggression. The other suggestion is that a human’s capacity to express very strong positive emotions is sometimes expressed as a negative. For example, when we’re overwhelmingly happy about something, we tend to cry which is a normally a consequence of a negative experience.
Whatever the reason, take some time today to squeeze the life (not literally) out of something you love, be that human or animal. Instead of showing them the money. Show them and yourself some love.