When people live with companion animals, they develop strong bonds and will often begin to project human emotions onto their pets. This can be harmless and even beneficial in developing empathy and compassion, but in some cases projecting human traits onto our pets can be detrimental to our furry friends.
When people empathize with animals, they can become more compassionate, pet adoptions can be encouraged, and the scientific community can even be stimulated.
Children can actually learn empathy by mimicking animals and anthropomorphizing (attributing human characteristics to animals). For example, when a child watches a cat and curls up into a similar pose, “meows,” and then mimics grooming; the child is putting him/herself into the animal’s place and learning to think like the animal. This requires observational skills, and keen observations are the building blocks to any scientific discovery. Such empathetic moments can be built upon when kids then ask questions about what an animal likes and doesn’t like. Psychologists such as Gene Myers have studied the many benefits that come from children’s connections with animals. Assisting in care tasks for a family pet is also a great way to instill empathy and responsibility in children. Watching animal body language can be a valuable learning tool for all ages.
When empathetic adults see an animal sitting in a shelter (even if it is remotely, through photos shared on social media), they can have a compassionate compulsion to adopt the animal because they believe they are saving the pet. More and more shelters do not place time limits on how long animals can remain in care, so the animal may not truly be in immediate danger, but the fact remains for all shelters and rescue groups—they are looking for loving forever homes for animals. No shelter should be permanent. In the cases when humans empathize with homeless pets and adopt, everyone wins. The pets get forever homes and the humans feel good about rescuing their fur babies.
Within the last few decades, scientists have taken so many of our assumptions about animals and changed the way we think of “sentient beings.” In my own lifetime, new species have been described as “sentient” and we now know that humans are not the only animals to use tools or recognize their own reflections—traits that were attributed solely to humans in my early academic studies. When people realize that other animals are more like our species than not—and that they actually do “feel” and express some of the same emotions that humans do—the human/animal divide is broken down and this can mean greater efforts for conservation of animals and our shared habitats, as well as better treatment of animals worldwide. Mahatma Gandhi said, “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the ways its animals are treated.”
Empathy is recognizing the feelings and emotions of others, while sympathy is more akin to pitying someone or feeling bad for them just because their story reminds you of something that has happened to you. This sympathy aspect of pitying and tying in your own story is what I’ve seen cause issues with animals. When it comes to spaying/neutering, your pet’s diet, and walking your dog off-leash, it is best for all to remember that pets are not people.
I was once manning an information table on Chicago pet resources offered by The Anti-Cruelty Society. A young couple approached and told me about the Pit Bull they just adopted in their neighborhood. They were already facing some behavior challenges so I told them of training resources, asked if the dog was neutered (he was not), and told them that the Society would perform the procedure for free. The young man winced, contorted his face, covered his own crotch area with both hands and said, “I can’t do that to him!” Before I could say a word, the girlfriend chimed in with, “It’s not your balls, relax.” When it comes to people that refuse to sterilize their pets because they think too much of their own reproductive parts and project those feelings onto their pets the line of “too much humanizing” has been crossed. Cats and dogs do not have dreams of having their own families and living in a house with a white picket fence. Responsible pet parents should empathize to provide optimal care for their pets, but draw the line in this matter. I spoke with the young man at the fair about how easily and quickly his dog could get another pregnant (plus how hard it would be to find good homes for all the puppies and what could happen to the ones that didn’t find responsible pet parents), educated him on how decreased testosterone may help with some of the behavior challenges he was dealing with, pointed out that the procedure could prevent certain cancers, and finally emphasized how quick and minimally invasive the procedure was. Ultimately, he simply agreed to allow his girlfriend to bring in the dog to be neutered.
When it comes to diets, cats and dogs are completely different species than us and there are many things which are healthy to humans that can be downright toxic to our fur babies. Onions can cause anemia, chocolate is toxic, a common ingredient in gum can be lethal, and the list goes on. I have had people argue with me over the years that they feed their pet what they eat because the person would feel bad eating dog food all the time and not having a varied diet. Not only are many human items dangerous for pets to eat, but this poses behavior problems as well. The first time a pet is fed from their human’s plate, s/he learns that this is a food source—any subsequent “begging” behavior cannot be blamed on the animal. Pets should be fed high-quality pet food. If anyone wants to go “above and beyond,” there are many organic and whole-food options available. Dedicated pet parents can even prepare human-quality diets. I have prepared many meals of ground beef and rice for a foster dog with pneumonia and our family Borzoi, but the food was still served in the bowls.
The last example of sympathy gone wrong is especially pertinent for cities with dense car traffic. Living in Chicago, I find it nerve-wracking to see people walking dogs off-leash. Many have tried to rationalize it by saying their dogs “don’t like” leashes, or protest that their pooch is so well trained it’s no big deal. There are many reasons why this is illegal in most big cities; a number of things can make the best trained dog bolt—a truck back fires, a squirrel runs by—why run the risk of your best friend getting hit by a car? Unless in an enclosed yard (like at a dog park), dogs should always be on a secure leash.
Empathy and compassion are great traits, but when it comes to animals, it is important to remain a responsible caregiver. People bear responsibility for their pets. That means caring for fur babies to the best of one’s ability while still ensuring health and safety.
Tatiana Garrett grew up with Borzoi, a rescued Standard Poodle, cats, hamsters, parrots, rabbits, guinea pigs, and an iguana… just to name a few pets. She began her professional career with animals in 1995 at Brookfield Zoo. She has studied wild dolphins in Australia and rescued wildlife in Florida, but people are truly at the heart of her work. If it walks, hops, or slithers, Tatiana cares about it. She currently oversees the Humane Education programs at The Anti-Cruelty Society and hosts “Chicago Tails“ on Watch312.com.