“They’re so much work,” a friend of mine said recently. “I can’t be tied down like that,” he continued. “I need my freedom.” He was referring to pets as he knows I’m obsessed with mine.
I get it. I’ve had periods in my life when I couldn’t be tied down either.
“But it’s really not,” I replied. “Sure, you have to feed them and care for them and take them to the vet when they are sick. But beyond that, animals tend to take care of their humans vs. the other way around.”
Having lovingly raised two humans, my friend has a solid track record in that arena. So I continued to explain. “With kids, you are there solely for their growth and well being. It’s not about you,” I said. “You don’t use your kids to fulfill your unmet needs. But with animals, they seem to intuitively know how to heal us. It’s a different kind of thing.”
While it’s true animals can be just as wounded as humans if they’ve experienced abuse and neglect, their natural state is so loving, raising animals becomes an experience of relational attunement many of us did not receive in our own childhoods. I think that is why so many people care deeply for their animals. The unconditional love animals exude often is a new experience, allowing us to heal rifts in attachment bonds from childhood.
While human relationships are perhaps more rewarding, complex and sophisticated, they are far more risky. Animals don’t hurt us in the ways humans can. They don’t lie, cheat, betray, or steal (well, maybe a little bite of our food). And they don’t attack us, unless they feel threatened. They simply want to be loved.
When a human is an infant, ideally the parent attunes to the child by noticing her needs, holding her, and mirroring her facial expressions. Hours are spent simply gazing at the child in a loving, attuned manner allowing the child to feel safe and seen. Over time, as the child grows and becomes aware of being a separate self, she still tracks where her care giver is and how much attention is coming in her direction. But not all of us receive this type of attunement in the early and developing years.
Each morning and evening, my cat Marcus comes to me with his toy in his mouth wanting me to toss it to him. Or he will meow and want to be held. In this process, I am the care giver, attuning to him and his need for contact, stimulation and attention. But the rest of the time, Marcus and Mena are more attuning to me. Watching me as I work, sitting on my lap when I read, snuggling up to me when I sleep. And if I am crying for some reason, one of them immediately comes and checks on me. So the question is, who really is healing who?
In being so unashamed about their desires for affection and contact, animals help remind us that connection is part of being alive. Humans want love and contact too, yet we are often conditioned to view this as needy and shameful once we’ve grown beyond a certain age. By modeling their sense of connection and presence, they help us restore a sense of wholeness with the world around us. I think of them as angels in fur coats.