A transfer laden with consequences
When a pet is adopted within its imprint period, the attachment it felt to its mother is quickly transferred to the new owner, who steps in to meet the pet’s physical and emotional demands. Herein lies the reason pets become so instantly bonded to us. The process may seem harmless on the surface, even natural, but keep in mind that the normal progression of things would have the young animal soon beginning to detach from its parent. Whereas the animal’s mother would discourage continued dependence, the surrogate mother, the new owner, encourages it. In this way, the case of usurped identity is never followed by detachment. Quite the contrary: the whole dynamic of interactions between people and their pets relies on the maintenance of the bond. Because of this, pets remain infantile, never reaching any level of autonomy or emotional maturity.
The maintenance of this infantile attachment feeds a permanent state of anxiety. This can translate clinically to various psychological troubles and psychosomatic diseases, such as chronic itching, diarrhea, chronic vomiting, colitis, and bladder infections. These health problems do not exist in wild animals living in their natural habitats.
All species are vulnerable to becoming perpetually dependent as a result of this corruption of normal development. Gregarious animals like killer whales, dogs, and certain birds like those of the parrot family (budgies, cockatiels, and large parrots) are especially prone, but that is not to say cats, reptiles, and fish are immune. Any animal that spends time in our company, that shares our bed and our meals, that we constantly touch, reward, or talk to affectionately, is unconsciously conditioned to become an affection junky.
Because dependence on his new owner is maintained rather than discouraged during the critical period for reaching autonomy, a pet becomes forevermore emotionally dependent. He relies on the owner’s attention and affection, and will do whatever it takes to get it. Some pets discover by accident that their nervous scratching or licking attracts attention, whereby the behavior can be perpetuated to such an extreme that medical intervention is necessary. (This is why the effects of seasonal allergies often last well beyond the normal time frame.) Dogs will fake a sore paw or cough to awaken sympathy and provoke an interaction. Others will constantly ask for the door, knock things over, or vocalize continually. Some will soil their homes in order to receive a punishment that paradoxically stimulates a sense of well-being. In short, not unlike children, they can take anything but being ignored.
Like a drug addict whose drug has been taken away, a pet has to “go cold turkey” when his owner leaves him home alone. The anguish that an emotionally dependent animal experiences when separated from his owner closely resembles that of a young child separated from his mother; baby animals, including human babies, have evolved to understand the absence of a primary attachment figure as a threat to survival. It should be no surprise, then, that some dogs literally go crazy when left alone, destroying and soiling their homes. Others howl or bark all day long while their owners are gone. This, in particular, is reminiscent of a young puppy attempting to signal his distress at being separated from his mother, and to call her back to his side. The emotionally dependent dog bites and scratches the doorframe out of desperation; he destroys furniture out of frustration. A cat may urinate on his owner’s clothes or bed. Some parrots start screaming and pulling out their feathers, in some cases, plucking themselves to the bone. Dogs and cats lick themselves to the point of ulceration. Some express their suffering in a less dramatic way by pacing, or by eating or drinking excessively. Still others become chronic masturbators.
These compensatory behaviors are exaggerated manifestations of otherwise normal ones – eating, drinking, grooming, moving about, and reproducing. Before long, the “perversions” become deeply engrained habits that are easily triggered in even non-threatening situations. In short, by constantly soliciting the affection of a pet with attention and rewards, we deprive him of his birthright to become autonomous, and, in so doing, destroy his emotional health.
Well-trained or well-behaved animals simply internalize their anxiety, often paying the price in the form of psychosomatic diseases. For example, anxiety in cats can cause interstitial cystitis, a chronic bladder problem often confused with a urinary infection or stones. Chronic vomiting and diarrhea, itching, and colitis are other common psychosomatic symptoms. (2)
“Raised from birth in our presence, [animals] become ‘bilingual’: as much at ease with us as with their own kind, and able to enjoy both types of relationship,” writes Desmond Morris. “It is entirely possible for a pet animal to live out its life in an almost ideal way, with all its natural behavior patterns gaining full expression while at the same time its medical problems are dealt with efficiently: the best of both worlds, and a good contract for all concerned.” (4)
Contrary to the assertions of Desmond Morris, the lives of our pets are nowhere near ideal. An animal’s nature necessarily brings with it behaviors that are not welcome in its adoptive home. The main goal of training and socialization is to subdue the animal, to break its natural spirit. Deep inside each pet, with the exception of a few completely denatured and hyper-domesticated individuals, there is a wild animal that seeks desperately to express itself.
The numerous contradictory expectations we hold of our companion animals leave them anxious and confused:
– By allowing these children to lie on the bed or couch, by letting them eat near us and by watching them as they do so, by showering them with attention and physical affection, we are demonstrating all the consideration to which dominant animals have the right… but we punish our pets when they assume the role and act dominant towards us.
– Through our constant, affectionate solicitations, we give our pets no choice other than to become deeply attached to us… but we do not hesitate to leave them alone for hours and days at a time, closed up in a room or a cage to await our return. During holidays, kennels are full of boarders traumatized by the brutal and unexpected separation.
– Dogs, in particular, are expected to defend their human pack’s territory… but they must not jump on guests or behave in any way that might intimidate welcome visitors. They must not keep the mailman from circulating freely on their property and they also must not bark when strangers
pass on the periphery.
– We force our companion animals to take part in human society… but they must not exhibit sexual behaviors towards its members.
– We allow kids to pester them, but our pets must not defend themselves.
These and other contradictions make it difficult for animals to navigate the rules of their human “pack.” Trapped in a dead end, pets do their best to adapt. The most affected among them become hyper-nervous and hyper-vigilant, always on the lookout for the slightest movement in the house. Stimuli that were previously well-tolerated, like thunder, for instance, make them react uncontrollably and disproportionately. They come to exhibit compensatory behaviors like selfmutilation and eventually demonstrate disorders of the autonomic nervous system that appear as diarrhea, urinary problems, etc. An animal may begin to suffer from serious depression. He stops moving around, but at night does not sleep and forgets housetraining. His immune system fails and he falls ill. These signs indicate chronic anxiety and an extreme state of psychological inhibition. Psychosomatic diseases affecting human beings and even farm animals are well known, but due to a lack of interest, they have not been studied in pets. (5)
Dr. Charles Danten is a graduate of Agricultural Sciences and Veterinary Medicine, who practiced veterinary medicine for eighteen years, ten of which were spent in his own veterinary clinic near Montreal, Quebec. At different times during his career, Dr. Danten cared for companion, farm, and zoo animals. A growing awareness of the undesirable aspects of human-animal relationships led him to sell his clinic and leave the profession altogether.
References and notes
2. APBC; Beaudet, Richard. Work cited; Beata, C. (Dec.1996-Jan.1997). “Les maladies anxieuses chez les carnivores domestiques.” Point Vétérinaire; 28 (180): 67; Dramard, V. and Hanier, L. (1996). “La dépression réac-tionnelle chez le chat.” Point Vétérinaire; 27 (173); Pageat, P. Art. cited; Gagnon, A. C. (1997). “Les cystites félines d’origine émotionelle.” Point vétérinaire; 28 (181): 1097-1101; Overall, Karen L. (1996). “Separation anxiety and anxiety related disorders.” American Animal Hospital Association Proceedings (AAHA); Forbes, Neil (Sept. 1995). “Welfare of caged birds.” The Veterinary Record; Neville, Peter. (1996). “Management of separation anxiety and understanding of feline aggression.” North American
Veterinary Conference Proceedings; (10); Keymer, I. F. (1972). “The unsuitability of nondomesticated animals as pets.” The Veterinary Record; 91 (16): 373-381; Perry, Ross. Work cited; Dehasse, Joël and de Buyser, Colette. Works cited; Pitcairn, Richard H. and Suzan Hubble- Pitcairn. (2005). Natural Health for Dogs and Cats. Rodale Press.
4. Morris, Desmond (1990). The Animal Contract: Sharing the Planet. Virgin: 60.
5. Beata, C. Art. cited; Dramard, V. and Hanier, L. Art. cited; Pageat, P. Art. cited; Dantzer, R. (1995). “Stress et maladie.” Pratique médicale et chirurgicale de l’animal de compagnie; (2); Gagnon, A. C. Art. cited; Laborit, Henri. Éloge de la fuite: 22.
- Published: 30 April 2014
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