Why do we anthropomorphize our pets?

I’ll focus on cats. To quote P.L. Bernstein (The Welfare of Cats) some scientists (see below) have suggested that anthropomorphism “may have evolved to enable humans to recognise animals as ‘alternative sources of social support'”. The main reason for being a cat guardian is companionship.

This may have had the consequence of acting as a ‘selective pressure’ on cats (having an impact on the evolution of the domestic cat) such that domestic cats have evolved with physical and behavioural traits which more easily allow humans to give cats human mental states (i.e. to anthropomorphise cats). To restate this differently: our natural desire to humanise cats results in cats becoming more human.

Cats can be quite easily humanised because of their soft fur, small size and a willingness to be petted and held. Does this sound like a baby? Some breeds have been created to look more like babies e.g. the Scottish Fold with a rounded head and the Sphynx (hairless and baby-like skin) and the flat-faced Persian.

Another scientist (Archer in 1997) stated that pets evolved ways to elicit care-giving from their human guardians i.e. cats get their way with us and train us (sounds familiar?). The cat gets his/her benefits while the human in turn is rewarded with a partnership which ‘has fewer conditions and expectations placed upon it than those involving other humans’ (P.L. Bernstein).

We (cat lovers and caretakers) know that we end up with shared rituals with our cats which are ‘co-understood and performed, allowing for routine interactions’ (Alger and Alger 1997). In other words humans develop routines with their cats which make interactions smoother, understandable and reassuring for the cat.

There are obviously many positive consequences from anthropomorphising our cats which is why cat ownership has undergone substantial growth over the years but there are also downsides for the cat. Breeding for appearance is an obvious example. Breeders bred cats that are attractive to people and this can mean baby-faced. The rounded Persian with flat-face has inherent health problems as does the Scottish Fold with flat ears.

It is my view that although domestication of the cat looks very successful (because of its expansion) that success favours the human. There are too many downsides for the cat such as mass euthanasia due to so called cat overpopulation and cats denied the chance to express natural desires/drives. Also in humanising cats we then feel that they can be punished if they behave badly. This is poor cat ownership. All cats behave naturally and never do wrong and should never be punished.

When the human/cat relationship goes wrong, the cat suffers not the human.

Katcher in 1981 said that the companion animal bond:

“must be looked upon as a kind of relationship that supplements and augments human relationships – the bond distinctly different from human relationships”.

There are good and bad aspects to the relationship.

We anthropomorphise our pets because we seek companionship (the human is a social animal) but often are unable to attain it with another human. This is a failure of the human. In attaining companionship with a cat we then substitute the human with a cat by anthropomorphising him/her. A lot of cat owners don’t know they are doing it. Perhaps all cat owners do it. These are my thoughts.

Scientists referred to: Serpell (2002), Bahkig-Pieren & Turner 1999 et al and Morris et al 2000.

2 thoughts on “Why do we anthropomorphize our pets?”

  1. I always think of this subject as assigning human emotions to cats. As caretakers, we want to believe that our cats feel what we feel and in the way that we feel. Because of this, we make many mistakes when trying to communicate with them. The examples are endless. For instance, a cat feels no shame or remorse when he/she does something to displease us. Therefore, punishing in some fashion or yelling does nothing but, perhaps, instill fear.
    Having been with cats my entire life, I can say that there are some possible attributes similar to humans. They are excitement, curiosity, solicitation (learned), and (possibly a stretch) grief and sadness.

    • I agree. Cats don’t harbour ill feeling either. They forget. They make human’s look very emotionally vulnerable which we are!


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