Fur love fur-ever? How to tell your furry friend truly loves you
You know you’re head-over-paws in love with your fur-baby, but how do you know they love you back? Here’s how to tell.
We buy them treats and toys, take them on walks and family outings, and even invite them to share our bed at night – but do our pets feel the same way about us?
Do they really feel affection for us, or do they just see us as food and play providers?
We dive into the research on pet behaviour and talk to a vet who specialises in the field to find out.
Do pets really love their humans?
Nothing can brighten your mood more than a wildly wiggling dog greeting you with enthusiastic tail wags, or jumping for joy when you return home.
Or a smoochy cat who rubs against your legs while purring as loudly as a high-octane motorcycle.
But do pets do those things to show they love you, or is it something else entirely?
Well, rest easy, pet lovers.
Behaviour veterinarian Dr Katrina Ward says she has no doubt that animals form strong emotional bonds with their owners, and vice versa.
“Dogs are talking to us all the time with their actions,” Dr Ward says.
“We all know the ‘I’m so happy to see you!’ dog; similarly, there’s the ‘oh no, you’re leaving’ or the needful ‘it’s walk time, now!’ dog – (but) most beautiful are the moments when they pick up on our distress or sadness and offer their comfort.”
Dr Ward says facial recognition occurs in many species, including crows, goats and cows.
“Mirror neurons (which are associated with empathy) exist in most social species of animal,” she says.
Evidence animals can ‘love’
BBC Two documentary Cats v Dogs: Which is Best? showcased the research of neuroscientist Dr Paul Zak, whose studies delved into whether pets are actually capable of loving us, and how that love was expressed on a biological level.
“A couple of small-scale studies have shown that when owners interact with their dogs, the human and their dog appear to release oxytocin, one of the chemical measures of love in mammals,” Dr Zak says.
“Humans produce the hormone in our brains when we care about someone – for example, when we see our spouse or child, the levels in our bloodstream typically rise by 40 to 60 per cent.”
MRI research also revealed that their owner’s scent lit up the dogs’ caudate nucleus, a region tied to higher-level mental processes such as emotion, motivation and reward, and romantic feeling.
Arizona State University’s Canine Science Collaboratory director Professor Clive Wynne says he is “completely convinced that our dogs love us.”
Prof Wynne and colleagues found dogs may even prefer their owners over food when they are left at home without food or human companionship for more than four hours.
But Prof Wynne notes dogs can also form these same types of strong attachments to other dogs, or other animals, they’re exposed to and bond with from a young age.
While some cats are not big on giving affection, that doesn’t mean they don’t care – they may just be less demonstrative.
Dr Ward says every animal is an individual.
“There are also the ones who want to be near, but not with or on their owner,” she says.
“Displays of affection don’t truly represent the value of the relationship; (for example) snuggly, kissy couples versus those who don’t – do we (evaluate) their love or care for one another depending on those displays?”
And it’s not just domestic pets that can show us affection, Dr Ward adds, citing the famously joyous reunion of Christian the lion, and the men who reared him, and the recent documentary My Octopus Teacher as examples of strong human-animal bonding.
Signs of reciprocated love with our pets
Dr Ward says anyone who has had a successful relationship with their pet knows their body language, but some of the mutual signs that confirm the love we share with our pets include:
You want to cuddle or stroke your pet and they want to receive it – they will show this with relaxed body language, leaning into you, or even asking for more.
If they turn their head away, it’s time to stop.
Reunions and welcomes
Pets will display happy body language when greeting you (anywhere), or upon your return home.
For dogs, this includes wagging tails, bouncing, or an eager expression; for cats, headbutting and facial rubbing.
Read more on pets:
- How pets boost health and happiness
- The many good reasons for having a family pet
- Common household items that are toxic for pets
- How to help pets cope with fireworks and thunder
Written by Andrea Beattie.