The connection we share: Companion animals and spiritualityby Vicki Hutton, Associate Professor, Discipline of Counselling, Australian College of Applied Psychology
Sometimes we choose to bring them into our lives. Sometimes they wander in and never leave. Before long they have taken over your life in a way that someone who has never lived with a companion animal may struggle to comprehend.
Companion animals, described as ‘those animals we bring into our homes, lives and hearts’ (RSPCA Queensland, 2020), may have no functional or economic purpose in urban society, and sometimes impose financial burdens on their human caretakers. Despite this, 62 per cent of Australian households are home to a companion animal, and there are more companion animals in Australia than humans (Animal Medicines Australia, 2016). Why then do so many humans develop such a strong and enduring attachment to their beloved animal companion?
For several decades research has consistently reported the physical, emotional and social benefits some humans enjoy when living with and caring for a companion animal. The physical benefits with dogs and the need to walk them (no matter how inclement the weather) are obvious. But other animal types can keep you just as active, whether it be cleaning up dirty paw prints; changing litter trays or bedding; sweeping up the endless dust balls clumped together with cat or dog hair, feathers or seed husks; or responding to their urgent need to eat – or toilet – every time you think it is safe to sit down, or sleep in!
The emotional benefits are also clear. Animals love unconditionally. Their love cannot be faked – a tail wag, a purr, an affectionate nibble or a gentle head butt all come straight from the heart. Nurturing the source of this unconditional love can provide a meaningful purpose in life for many people. Research shows that the same hormones that bond mother and infant are released when a human gazes at their beloved companion animal (Nagasawa, Ogawa, Mogi & Kikusui, 2017). Before long the bond is unbreakable so that irrespective of how you feel or how bad the weather is, you will drag yourself from bed in the morning to care for your animal companion’s needs.
Socially, research consistently shows that animals provide a conduit to interaction with other humans. Dog walking can be a great way to get to know others, while other animal types allow the sharing of animal-related anecdotes and entry into a group of like-minded people who are bound by their love and affinity with animals (Woods et al., 2015). There are photos to share and discussions to be had about levels of cuteness, amazing antics, and eating and toileting habits. Interestingly, industry research reports that people are more than twice as likely to upload pictures of their cat to social media compared to pictures of themselves (Williams, 2014).
Attachment to a companion animal can also mean loss. More than two decades of research into the implications of companion animal loss increasingly supports grief symptoms of equivalence to the loss of significant human relationships (Eckerd Barnett & Jett-Dias 2016). However, a person’s emotional, psychological, physical, and spiritual response to the loss of their beloved animal companion may not be fully understood by family, friends and the community, thus endorsing the implicit norm that the bonds between human and animal lack the depth and meaning of human-human bonds. It is in the grief literature that the spiritual connection between human and animal is often mentioned, and the need to maintain ongoing, meaningful ties with the deceased companion animal validated (Packman, Carmack & Ronen, 2012).
For some people, the spiritual connection between human and animal commences well before the animal’s death. This was evident in a series of interviews I conducted among animal lovers whose life trajectories had been significantly altered by a series of uncontrollable events. When describing his beloved ageing dog, interviewee ‘Robbie’ commented:
I’m sure he’s a part of me, part of my soul, my best mate. I know he’s old, but if possible, I love him even more for being old. He’s taught me not to fear death. He’s not scared, and he’s not even bothered about getting old, he just accepts and keeps loving (Hutton, 2019, p. 103).
A spiritual connection
Throughout history and across cultures animals have co-habited with humans. Archaeological records show animals featured in art, architecture, folklore and the religious and spiritual rites of many ancient traditions (Wilmer, 2019). Animal symbols and metaphors have appeared in religious practices across historical eras and geographical locations, and animal guardian spirits were often called upon to mediate healing and wellbeing (Serpell, 2006).
Given this historical legacy and the strong affection that can bind human to animal, it is not surprising that some people feel a spiritual dimension to the bond they share with their companion animal. Spirituality can be a difficult concept to define, but there are some crucial components captured in the following definition:
Spirituality is the aspect of humanity that refers to the way individuals seek and express meaning and purpose and the way they experience their connectedness to the moment, to self, to others, to nature, and to the signiﬁcant or sacred (Puchalski, Vitillo, Hull, & Reller, 2014, p. 643).
Spirituality underpins relationship-centred compassionate care and is strongly linked to a person’s sense of purpose and connection, concepts that consistently feature in the human-animal literature. Animals are also well-positioned to provide a conduit to the natural world, thus facilitating a connectedness to nature that can be missing in some people’s lives. Drawing on Puchalski et al.’s (2014) definition of spirituality, this article examines the human-animal bond and spirituality in three core domains: animals as a conduit to the natural world; animals and non-verbal connectedness to an innocent sentient being; and animals as a joyful connection to the moment.
Connection to the natural world
In the 1950s German philosopher, psychoanalyst and social psychologist Erich Fromm wrote of humanity’s ‘existential dichotomy’ arising from being part of nature, yet transcending it through the development of self-awareness and reason (Gunderson, 2014). Fromm believed that the more people were separated from the natural world, the more intense was the need to find ways of escaping isolation and meaninglessness (Fromm, 1957).
Child psychologist, Boris Levinson, often cited as the founder of animal-facilitated therapy, echoed Fromm’s concerns about human disconnection from the natural world, stating: “One of the chief reasons for man’s (sic) present difficulties is his inability to come to terms with his inner self and to harmonise his culture with his membership in the world of nature” (Levinson, 1972, p.6).
These beliefs were formalised in E.O.Wilson’s (1984) ‘biophilia hypothesis’, which describes the evolutionary importance of humanity’s need, as both predator and prey, to understand and cohabit within the natural world. While direct dependence on nature for physical survival has been reduced for many urban-dwelling humans, there remains a fundamental need in the human psyche to maintain, or re-establish a connection to nature. For some people, companion animals can provide a conduit to conscious awareness of the supportive effects of the natural world, thus reinstating a connectedness with nature and with the significant and the sacred.
Several decades of research consistently support the calming and healing properties of relations with dogs, cats, horses, birds, and other living beings, whether this be achieved by gazing into an aquarium (Katcher, Segal & Beck, 1984), rhythmically stroking a purring cat or simply losing oneself in the experience of connecting with a sentient being intuitively attuned to a shared non-verbal communication (Karol, 2007). In this way connectedness to an animal can go beyond the joy of connection with the natural world to the mutual joy of unspoken love and affection.
Non-verbal connectedness to an innocent sentient being
In 2012 a prominent group of scientists signed the Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness, which affirmed that humans are not unique in possessing parts of the brain that generate conscious states (Animal Ethics, 2019). A significant number of non-human animals, including mammals and birds, are sentient; that is, they experience what is happening to them and experience positive and negative states such as fear, play, embarrassment, anger, irritation, love, sadness, and grief.
Ratification of the popular belief that animals can ‘feel emotions’ probably came as no surprise to the many companion animal carers who already anthropomorphised their beloved animal. Anthropomorphism – defined as the ‘attribution of human mental states (thoughts, feelings, motivations and beliefs) to nonhuman animals’ (Serpell, 2003, p. 83) – is a common trait amongst people and their companion animals. People give their animals human names, talk on their behalf, celebrate their birthdays, and grieve when they die.
In reflecting upon the minds of animals, Mark Bekoff, contributor to the Cambridge Declaration and renowned for his passionate interest in animal behaviour, cognitive ethology (the study of animal minds) and compassionate conservation, commented on the importance of considering more deeply what it meant to find the sacred in individual animals and the special relationships that humans can sometimes have with them (McDaniel, 2006). Speaking of his own beloved German Shepherd Jethro, Bekofff described the wonder in companionship with living beings not of one’s species, and the mutual benefit and spiritual enrichment that can emerge from the human-animal bond. He believed that there were forms of communication and shared feeling, creature to creature, that facilitated a communion and a direct knowing of what the other was feeling and trying to say.
This unspoken communication and sense of wonder was evident when I spoke with the group of animal lovers mentioned earlier on the meaning of their relationship with their companion animals. As ‘Vince’ explained:
I know the animals prolonged my life and healed parts of my psyche … I think it’s the wholeness, that completeness. It’s the tactile physical sensation coupled with that emotional response. On top of that there’s a spiritual connection, that psychic bonding. It’s unspoken, words aren’t needed … Something happens. It’s really profound – it’s that sense of oneness – and I can forget all the not-so-good parts of my life (Hutton, 2019, pp. 66-68).
Another interviewee ‘Joe’, increasingly housebound as his medical condition worsened, described the relationship he shared with a bird:
It’s strange, but I do feel very spiritually inclined towards him. There’s this unsaid stuff that goes on all the time between us. There’ll be a touch, a look, a sigh. It’s like an unspoken language, so I think, holistically, we’re completely in tune. I know we’re an odd couple, but I think we’re also like soulmates (Hutton, 2019, p. 186).
The wonder of companionship and spiritual enrichment within the human-animal relationship can also ground a person firmly in the here-and-now.
Living in the moment
Experiencing a connectedness to the moment, to self and others is fundamental to spirituality, and animals have a special way of bringing people back to the moment. Where people define their animal companions as family members, the animal is often viewed as a toddler – “playful, zestful, curious, cute, and affectionate” – evoking in the adult feelings of joy and nurturance (Marcus 2007, p. 653). Importantly, like a young child, animals demonstrate the ability to live in the moment through the games they play with their human companions, each other, and alone.
Developmental psychologist and psychoanalyst Erik Erikson commented that a person should at each stage of the adult life cycle renew some of the playfulness of the young. For Erikson, play was aliveness, symbolizing the opposite of death, and intimately linked to vital involvement in life (Hoare, 2002).
The important connection between play and living in the here-and-now was highlighted by ‘Brenton’, when explaining the relationship he shared with Tom, the cat.
But we’ve shared so much, and he knows everything there is to know about me. He brought fun back to my life when I truly thought it was gone forever. I can watch him playing in an empty box or with a screwed up piece of paper, and for that brief time I’m living in the moment, no past regrets and no thoughts of the future (Hutton, 2019, p. 171).
Cats have a long history with humans, with the earliest archaeological evidence for cat and human cohabitation dating back 9,500 years in Cyprus, during the human transition to agriculture and the need to control vermin (Vigne, Guilaine, Debue, Haye & Gérard, 2004).
While cats may no longer provide vermin control in many households, their nonchalant, slightly aloof yet loving persona has seen them become firmly entrenched in human lives. Humans, with their advanced cognitive ability, can contemplate existential anxiety, but cats (and other animals) remain grounded in the present moment, providing a conduit to connectedness to self and to spirituality.
We bring them into our lives, our homes and our hearts. We clean up after them, we excuse their sometimes embarrassing habits and, if necessary, we do without to pay their medical bills. But the spiritual bond we form with our animal companions is pure and innocent, a buffer to everyday stressors and the basic human fears of separation and abandonment. In fact, every time you love an animal, share their feelings, laugh at their antics or grieve their death, you are forging a sacred bond.
Always remember – the dog and cat hairs that attach to all your clothes are a badge of honour. The muddy paw prints and scratched furniture are a lifestyle choice that transforms your house into a ‘home’. And every time you contemplate the joy and wonder of your amazing animal companion you are sharing a moment of spiritual communion.
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