Do our animal friends really love us?

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I just had an interesting conversation with the manager of my horse’s new barn. We were swapping stories and our outlooks on all things equine when he said, “I think one of the biggest mistakes that people make is thinking that their horses love them.” I’m sure I made some sort of noncommittal reply, but after we parted ways I gave the comment deeper thought. Does my horse love me? I don’t think he does.

Don’t get me wrong, he is very attached to me, and I’m not the only one who has said so. I had to take him in to a veterinary referral hospital for some dental work a while back, and the technicians mentioned it after he kept looking over his shoulder whinnying at me as they led him away. When we are together he is usually kind and playful and seems genuinely happy that I’m there. After we’ve been apart, he’s either excited to see me or sulky if I’ve been gone too long. I love him, but I think he sees me more as a source of good things like grooming, fun outings and food, as well as a protector. This doesn’t necessarily equal love.

I define love in this situation as a willingness to put someone else’s best interests in front of your own. I don’t think Atticus is capable of doing that. He has injured me (never seriously and always unintentionally) when he’s been scared because he is focused solely on self-preservation. I chalk this up to horses being prey animals. When push comes to shove, they fall back on an “everyone is out to get me” point of view. I remember one time when I fell off Atticus after he over-reacted to some perceived threat. After he realized his mistake, he sheepishly walked over to me, putting his nose on my shoulder. He looked genuinely sorry to find me in a heap on the ground, but I doubt that he had the slightest concern for my well-being in the heat of the moment.

Do my cats love me? I smile even as I ask that question. It brings to mind the quote, “Dogs have owners; cats have staff.” I do not doubt that others have different relationships with their cats, but mine seem to view me as I suspect the aristocracy looks upon their faithful servants — with affection, but that’s as far as it goes.

Dogs are another story altogether. Too many dogs have put their own well-being at risk to help their people to discount the possibility that love plays a role in that relationship. I’ve never been in mortal danger, but I did have a dog protect me from a stick once. Before you laugh, let me defend my dog by saying this was one scary sounding stick.

I was walking down the side of the road with my dachshund-beagle-corgi named Owen when I accidentally kicked a smallish branch covered in dry leaves. It made a horrendous cracking-scratching-rattling noise. Owen jumped in front of me with fangs bared, fur raised, and eyes shining with hate tinged by a little fear, ready to protect me from the evil beastie that dared threaten his person. I was so proud of my little guy! I made a big fuss over him to ease his embarrassment after he realized what the “threat” really was.

So, what do you think? Do your animals love you?

Dr. Jennifer Coates

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Posted by on December 6, 2012. Filed under CRITTER TALK. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.
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11 Responses to Do our animal friends really love us?

  1. James Smith

    December 6, 2012 at 6:01 pm

    Dogs? Not the slightest doubt in my mind. I used to have a cairn Terrier mix and we were playing chase the tennis ball in the house one day when the ball bounced off a wall and hit him in the eye. He instantly forgot the ball and came running to me for some “make it well, pack leader” attention.

    He would always sleep under my be, When he was alone, if he could get into my closet, he would remove all of my shoes and arrange them in a circle on my bad and lie in the center of them. He never chewed one or left a single mark on them but he would guard them while I was gone.

    As I mentioned before, try to be the person your dog thi8nks you are – worthy of unconditional love.

    • Michael John Scott

      December 6, 2012 at 6:12 pm

      James I’ve had similar experiences. One of my dogs, Athor, a German shepherd, became alarmed a couple of years ago when I developed a cough. No matter where he was in the house or yard, if he heard me cough he came running and offered me his paw. That’s just one of those many, many stories I could share, but life is too short 🙂

  2. James Smith

    December 6, 2012 at 6:24 pm

    Maybe he was interpreting the cough s people barking for “come get a treat?” Our two dogs here seem to think every noise we make as “time for a belly rub.” 😀

  3. Carol Maietta views

    December 6, 2012 at 11:08 pm

    If the animal brings out the best in us, to me, that is love 🙂

  4. Jason

    December 7, 2012 at 1:44 am

    I honestly don’t know. I do know dogs have to be capable of love, too much evidence of how protective they are to make me think otherwise. I think horses and cats are capable of love, but maybe they tend to be more selfish. Like a bad girlfriend or boyfriend….they loved you, they cared for you, but they never let them get themselves to that unselfish place, the place you get to when you find the person you want to marry. I think cats always are like the teenager….they feel love, they just are too self absorbed to understand how to handle it. Horses, I agree, but I have heard stories where a horse has saved an owner from danger, I just think for horses, when they see the things that evolution has made them fear….they tend to panic and think like a coward who abandons his post in the military. If that horse were put in a position to have to save your life, like from another person or a fire, I think the horse probably comes through. for snakes or bears or mountain lions or wolves, you might be in trouble because they have to fight against thousands of years of evolution if they are to put themselves in a fight over flight mindset.

    • Michael John Scott

      December 7, 2012 at 4:01 pm

      I have horses Jason, and I’m afraid I don’t see much light behind those beautiful eyes. As you pointed out they’re pretty much afraid of anything. They’ve been known to bolt at the sight of a cockroach. I do love my horses though…they don’t need to be bright, or even loyal, to look nice in the pasture.

      • Carol Maietta views

        December 8, 2012 at 3:33 am

        Jason, I like how you compared cats and horses to a bad girlfriend or boyfriend: they are capable of the love but too self absorbed to know how to handle it to its fullest. I have certainly seen that in my life.
        Good reply.

        • E.A. Blair

          December 9, 2012 at 12:50 am

          A number of years ago, thanks to a catastrophic fracture of my left arm, I had to automate my cat care – daily feedings and litter scoopings were possible but difficult. I proceeded to get an automatic portion-control food dispenser that held two to three months’ worth of dry food, a circulating pet fountain that holds a week’s water and a self-scooping litter box that only needed attention every third or fourth day (for two cats).

          Over time, the cats decoupled the providing of their daily needs from my person. Water and clean litter were always available, and food was delivered three times a day whether I was there or not. Yet they still sought me out for affection and companionship even though they were not hungry, thirsty or in need of a clean place to poop.

          My current cat has never known this house without the same amenities, and she is one of the most affectionate I have ever had. I sometimes think that given the choice between cuddles and kibbles, she prefers the affection. Dogs and cats express their affection differently, and I prefer the less exuberant feline variety. Maybe other people don’t consider that love, but for me it’ll do until the human variety comes along.

          • James Smith

            December 9, 2012 at 6:31 am

            It could be a difference in individual animals personality and it could be a difference in you. Animals do sense who is friendly toward them and who is truly affectionate and loving.

            I am a “dog person” even though I have had cats and cared a lot for them, too. But dogs are normally very friendly to me, even if they did not know me. Yes, they will often bark because I am a stranger but quickly warm up after a few quiet words and I offer them the back of my hand to sniff.

            On my daily walks I often go past houses with dogs in the open. They will usually park (it’s their job as they see it) but I can say, “It’s only me” and they often stop and cone to the fence. After the sniff and calm works they after want to be petted as they may have been alone for hours. They are social animals and like that.

            The only problem is explaining to y own dogs when I get home, why the smell another dog on my hands. 🙂

  5. Bill Formby

    December 11, 2012 at 10:22 am

    I think it instinctual in canines to care about members of their pack be they humans or other canines. Of all of the common domestic pets they are the most caring of their people. They actually ask very little and give back so much that, as many people say, their love is unconditional. Is it “love” as humans define it, who knows? But I will take it as it is anytime.