Ways To Build Healthy Attachment With Pets

healthy pet attachment

While attachment is often associated with other people, such as parents, partners, and friends, people can also feel attached to non-human beings like animals. Animals, especially pets, are readily available, active, and affectionate — offering feelings of connectedness, special friendship, and a sense of belonging. This underlies the reason why social psychologists claim that pets are a natural object of attachment. 

Regardless of species, an affectionate bond with pets can mitigate psychological distress, ease loneliness, and prevent suicide. In a study, 16.7% of the participants reported that their dogs prevented them from taking their own lives (Barcelos et al. 2021). This phenomenon can be explained by two reasons, the dog’s affection and the fact that they need to care for the animal.

On the other hand, according to a 2021 research led by Roxane Hawkins about the experiences of people having pets and their mental health,  pets are associated with higher general mental health burdens of their keepers due to increased guilt and excessive worry, especially when pets receive a strong attachment from their owners. Results show that people can feel emotionally strained and doubt their ability as a pet owner due to feeling guilty and selfish as they need to leave their pets alone at home. 

To avoid the negative mental health effect of having pets due to extreme attachment, it is recommended to build a healthy attachment with pets through several strategies as follows:

Being familiar with non-verbal communication

The fact that people and animals are different species makes it challenging for people to communicate with their pets since it is mainly based on non-verbal language. In some cases, basic behaviors that people like to do are not well received by pets. Therefore, it is vital to get familiar with their body language and adjust accordingly.

The first thing pet owners can do is to get to know their pet’s body language through observation. Pets’ body language includes tail carriage and motion, ear and eye position, body position and movement as well as facial expressions. Meanwhile, it is also necessary to observe the entire body as well as the situation or context to accurately decipher what is being conveyed. For example, a wagging tail can mean an excited cat, or an irritated one if the cat’s body is stiff and on guard.

In addition, pet owners need to learn how to communicate with their pets using eye contact and hand gestures. Eye contact represents people’s readiness to communicate and it triggers the release of oxytocin, the hormone responsible for bonding. However, eye contact should be done briefly in seconds, especially with new pets, and can be prolonged over time once they are accustomed. Non-verbal communication can also be facilitated by pairing eye contact with a hand signal and using it consistently to help clear up misunderstandings and build trust with pets.

Creating a routine

Close pet-owner interactions including cuddling, walking, and feeding are the most frequent activities enhancing the owner’s emotions and life functioning (Barcelos et al, 2021). At the same time, pets need to play for emotional, mental, and physical stimulation that promotes their well-being. While these activities offer health benefits for both parties, they are also an excellent way to bond.

Creating routines for several different behaviors can facilitate regular interactions between owners and their pets. Owners can start with setting and maintaining regular feeding times to let their pets feel comfortable with them and their environment. Pet keepers can also set a regular grooming routine to show their love through gentle encouragement and affection. Another option is to spend some time cuddling and petting as physical contact can create a sense of safety and comfort providing momentary stress relief.

For fun activities, setting up a schedule for morning or evening play sessions can be an option. Since cats are predators, playing by using “prey sequence” — staring, chasing, pouncing, and performing a kill bite before eating is important to encourage their natural instincts. Meanwhile, keepers can have regular outdoor strolls and play treasure hunts with their dog pets which can promote mental activeness.

Balancing time spent together and alone

While close interaction with pets is important in building an attachment, it does not mean that the owner should overdo it. Both keepers and pets need some time to be alone, especially when feeling overwhelmed, wanting to stay away from the crowd, or being in the mood for a quiet nap. For some days, keepers can take a walk together with their dogs but let them run free and enjoy their time alone to help maintain a good level of dependency, hence healthy attachment.

However, pet owners should also not leave their pets alone for long periods since it could lead to a higher risk of developing separation anxiety. For instance, dogs can develop separation-related behaviors, such as barking, toileting, or destroying household items when left without human company. But how much time should owners spend with their pets?

Unfortunately, there is no clear-cut answer to the question since every pet and every circumstance is different.  Dr. Vint Virga, a board-certified in veterinary behavior and the author of The Soul of All Living Creatures, said that dogs should get at least a total of two hours per day to socialize with their owner. They should not spend more than 6-8 hours alone during the day. To counter pets’ long alone hours, Dr. Virga recommends preparing activity puzzles before going out and keeping dog pets occupied for up to a few hours while unaccompanied.

In conclusion

As a companion, pets can promote or demote their owners’ well-being based on their attachment style. The benefits of having pets can be gained by building healthy attachments which can be done in several meanings. Pet owners need to be able to communicate with their pets by familiarizing themselves with their pets’ body language. While owners also need to interact regularly with their pets by having a routine together, they also need to give their pets some time alone.

If you would like to know more about how your attachment style can affect your well-being, you’ve come to the right place. The Personal Resilience Science Labs produces courses, certifications, podcasts, and other learning materials that explore the subject of attachment. These resources are based on the research of the Institute for Life Management Science and are based on science and practice. Visit the Personal Resilience Science Labs today.

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Photo by Sarah Dorweiler on Unsplash

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