Evidence for an association between pet behaviour and owner attachment levels

Links between the behaviour of cats and dogs and levels of attachment shown by their owners

source: James A. Serpell
Applied Animal Behaviour Science vol 47 no 1-2, April 1996
starts p49, 12 pages long

Behavioural problems are a common reason for people giving up pets to animals shelters, but there has been little research into links between pets’ behavior and levels of owner attachment. Studies on attachment have tended to focus on companionship as a benefit, or other areas which are not linked to the animal’s behaviour. This survey, of 47 cat owners and 37 dog owners, has investigated links between owner attachment levels and animal behaviour, asking questions of owners a year after they had taken home cats or dogs from two UK animal shelters.

The survey involved a postal questionnaire asking about the pets’ behaviour, views of actual and ideal pets, and levels of attachment to their pets. No owner described themselves as not particularly attached, all choosing either moderately attached (19 owners) or very attached (65 owners).

Owners of cats and dogs did not differ in terms of attachment, but dogs were seen as different in terms of behaviour, eg more playful, affectionate, active, and confident when faced with unfamiliar situations than cats.

Actual dogs were measured against an ideal, and were found to be less confident, less obedient, and not as happy about being left alone, and more affectionate, excitable and active than ideal dogs. Actual cats were seen as less confident, affectionate, playful, obedient, and intelligent than ideal cats, and more excitable and aggressive towards their owners and others they knew.

The ‘ideal’ ratings of cats and dogs was not significantly different between very attached and moderately attached owners. Very attached owners, however, saw dogs as more intelligent, and cats as noisier than moderately attached owners. While moderately attached owners of dogs seemed generally less satisfied with their behaviour of their dogs, moderately attached cat owners seemed more satisfied with some aspects of their cats’ behaviour, such as how energetic they were, compared to their ideals.

The length of time someone owns a pet, and where the pet comes from can affect attachment levels, and these variables were controlled for in this study. Cat owners rated their cats as less intelligent than dogs. They were also not seen as significantly cleaner, quieter or more able to tolerate being left alone than dogs, though this may be linked to their having come from a shelter. Dogs tended to diverge from the ideal in terms of needing more affection and being worried about being alone - which may also be linked to their coming from a shelter. Aggression was not seen as a problem with dogs, which may be because shelters are wary of rehoming dogs showing signs of aggression. Owner-directed aggression is not common in cats, and again the prevalence of this problem in the sample could be linked to cats having been given up to shelters because of such aggression.

There was no link between ideal views of cats and dogs and levels of attachment, so lack of attachment does not appear to be linked to unrealistic expectations. ‘Actual’ ratings for most behaviour also did not appear to be linked to attachment levels, though noisier cats and more intelligent dogs seemed to have owners that were more attached. Absolute levels of behaviour may not be important for owners. However, average discrepancies between ’ideal’ and ‘actual’ ratings was linked to attachment levels, especially for dogs. This may be because dogs’ behaviour has more of an effect on owners, due to dogs being bigger and interacting more with owners.

More research is needed, since the numbers of moderately attached owners were small, but there does appear to be a link between the behaviour of pets and how attached their owners are, especially where dogs are concerned. This is worth looking into, since more attached owners are more likely to keep rather than abandon their pets.