Why do people give up their pets

What animals give us - and we give them

Can we develop as close a bond with dogs, cats and the like as we do with humans? Yes, says behavioral biologist Kurt Kotrschal. A conversation about the psychology of an ancient relationship

Professor Kotrschal, every year people spend billions of euros on their pets. Why do you keep animals at all?

Prof. Kurt Kotrschal: I don't like the term “pet” - dogs, cats or horses are not primarily characterized by having them in the house. But by building a social relationship with them. They are companions, cronies. That is why I usually speak of “companion animals”. Above all, these companion animals have not only existed since humans settled down, lived in houses.

How far do the mutual relationships go back?

Up to our hunter-gatherer ancestors. For example, we know that the close relationship between humans and wolves began 40,000 years ago. Humans have probably always lived with animals without really wanting to eat them. The last hunter-gatherer cultures still in existence today, for example in the Amazon region, offer a clue. There people take in the young of slain mother animals. For example, you shoot a female spider monkey and raise the baby monkey. On the one hand, the animal child is a companion for the human child; they spend time together and can establish relationships with the animal. On the other hand, the behavior also has spiritual roots: Caring for the offspring brings about reconciliation with the spirit of the mother who was killed. Spirituality is most likely the root of all animal relationships - and vice versa, the root of being human.

Did our ancestors always seek spiritual appeasement?

They all believed in the soulfulness of nature and thus also of animals. Some creatures were seen as close relatives, as totems, as spiritual mediators. People gave them certain qualities such as courage and perseverance, wisdom and strength. And they probably wanted to acquire these properties themselves in spiritual contact with the animals.

Does that still apply today, for example when people are surrounded by particularly strong dogs?

It may be that some people opt for a strong dog because they perceive themselves to be powerful and so hope to be able to underline their charisma. But today very few people should care about spirituality when they choose an animal. However, the behavior and ideas of our ancestors left their mark on each of us. We are born with specific needs that are related to our genetic heritage. One of the basic needs is revealed in the fact that good social, emotional, cognitive and physical development also includes growing up in contact with animals and nature. This is shown by a number of studies.

When do children become interested in animals?

We are interested in us in the cradle. Observations show that babies aged three to six months are as interested in nothing as animals. This biophilia, the love of the living, is universal: All healthy toddlers in this world are extremely animal-friendly - the younger, the more intense, regardless of their parents' culture and attitude. Even the first vocalizations are often related to animals, for example when children enthusiastically point to a dog and say "Wauwau". At the age of six to nine, the emotional relationships with different animals often differentiate: children now have favorite animals. Between the ages of ten and 13, factual interest and factual knowledge about animals increase by leaps and bounds. And then gradually a broader understanding of animals as part of ecosystems emerges.

If it is so natural for us to live with animals: why are there people who have absolutely no longing for a relationship with animals?

The fact that not all adults are equally enthusiastic about animals depends - as with all other characteristics - on their abilities and development conditions. These people could fairly safely warm up to animals in their childhood. Perhaps, however, this interest was not particularly encouraged by the parents. Nevertheless, one day many adults feel that they are missing something and the desire to take in a dog or cat grows in them. Often this need is rationalized. Then it is said: a dog is a good leisure partner, it is good for health, it is good for the development of children. All of that is correct. But at its core there is a need that is far removed from reason. A deep, instinctive desire.

Can we bond with animals as intensely as we do with humans?

Yes absolutely. Dogs are our social alter ego. They respond very well to our needs and in turn have almost identical needs. That means: with a little heart and brain you can build a symmetrical, stable and extremely enriching partnership with a dog. In addition, one of the basic human needs is to give and receive care. I want to be loved and I want others to love. It can be a bit complicated with other people, more complicated than with a dog or cat.

Are these relationships easier?

They are generally less complicated. A dog, a cat or a horse doesn’t care whether I am ugly or beautiful, whether I am well or badly dressed, whether I am rich or poor. My dog ​​has never complained to me about my socks lying on the couch.

From a well-socialized companion animal - especially from dogs - you get much more unconditional care than from any human. You feel judged by people, less by dogs. That doesn't mean that an animal doesn't evaluate us.

In what way?

Studies show, for example: If a dog watches how two people interact - and the two behave in a friendly manner to one another - then the dog will be happy to take a treat from both of them. However, if one person treats the other badly, then the dog then prefers the person who appeared nicer to him. And rather takes a treat from someone who has not acted aggressively.

Dogs are very good at reading our emotions. And they develop preferences: not every dog ​​likes everyone. In this respect, the myth of unconditional love is not entirely true. And yet dogs are far less critical than humans.

This is an abridged version. You can read the complete interview with in GEO WISSEN "Beloved Companions".