Exploring the dynamics of owner–pet attachment, researchers from the University of Helsinki gathered extensive data on the personality traits of thousands of dogs, cats, and their owners. The study, published in the journal iScience, encompasses information from approximately 2,500 pet owners and 3,300 pets.
Examining the attachment relationships between humans and their furry companions, the researchers delved into two dimensions of insecure attachment: anxious and avoidant. Anxiously attached pet owners exhibit a heightened need for proximity and concern about losing their pets, while avoidantly attached owners seek a high level of independence and fear the loss of personal autonomy.
Breaking new ground, the study not only investigated the role of owner personality in attachment styles but also considered the personality traits of the pets themselves. Mental well-being was a central focus for both owners and pets. For owners, symptoms of anxiety and depression, stress levels, and overall life satisfaction were scrutinized. In the case of cats and dogs, the researchers assessed unwanted behavior traits, providing insights into challenges akin to human mental well-being. This comprehensive approach sheds light on the intricate interplay of personality and attachment in the relationships between humans and their animal companions.
Mental well-being of both parties visible in type of attachment bond
The study revealed a correlation between lower mental well-being scores in cat and dog owners and heightened anxious attachment to their pets. Additionally, in dog owners, these scores were linked to an avoidant attachment style. When it came to dogs' mental well-being, characterized by unwanted behavior, both attachment styles played a role: aggression and ADHD-like behavior were associated with avoidantly attached owners, while fear-related behavior correlated with anxiously attached owners.
Doctoral Researcher Aada Ståhl provided insights into the findings, suggesting, “Avoidantly attached owners perhaps offer insufficient security for their dog in threatening situations, which may provoke fear and aggressive behavior.” This observation also raised the possibility that these owners engage in fewer shared activities with their dogs, a factor associated with impulsiveness in dogs. Additionally, the researchers considered the potential reverse causality, where unwanted behavior in a dog might contribute to insecure attachment, intensifying the owner's need for independence or proximity. The study thus uncovers intricate connections between the mental well-being of both owners and pets and their attachment dynamics.
Dog and cat personality plays role in insecure attachment
The personality traits of both cat and dog owners, along with their pets, exhibited associations with insecure attachment styles. Owner neuroticism, in particular, showed a clear link with an anxious attachment style.
Explaining this connection, Aada Ståhl noted, “The personality trait of neuroticism is characterized by instability in expressing emotions, reflecting insecurity, anxiety, and threat detection. This may explain the association, given that attachment anxiety reflects sensitivity to experiencing negative emotions in the context of the relationship.”
Further insights revealed that owners of the most active cats and, conversely, the most conscientious cat owners tended to be more anxiously attached. Among dog owners, those who were more neurotic, agreeable, and extroverted were less avoidantly attached to their dogs. Notably, pets with a higher inclination for human sociability had owners with fewer avoidant attachment tendencies.
In essence, the study highlights a parallel tendency in the attachment styles of both owners and their pets, emphasizing the interconnected nature of human-animal relationships and the influence of personality traits on attachment dynamics.
Deeper understanding of pet–owner connection helps promote well-being of both
The profound attachment bond between owners and pets significantly shapes the shared life experience. Previous research has demonstrated that attachment styles influence the quality of care owners provide to their pets.
What sets this project apart is its comprehensive inclusion of dogs, cats, and owners, providing a unique perspective on the intricate connections within these relationships. The study underscores the need for a deeper understanding of the factors influencing the dynamics between owners and pets, offering valuable insights to guide individuals in making informed decisions when acquiring a pet.
Professor Hannes Lohi emphasizes the importance of recognizing that obtaining a pet during periods of poor mental well-being might not necessarily lead to the expected improvement. Conversely, the findings suggest that interventions addressing dog behavior issues could benefit from considering not only changes in pet behavior but also accounting for the factors related to owner attachment styles. This holistic approach enhances our comprehension of the complex interplay in human-animal relationships, contributing to more informed decisions and targeted interventions for the well-being of both owners and their cherished companions.
Source: University of Helsinki