Friday, December 9, 2011

Pet Week 4: Pets and Human Attachment

Lorenz and his geese.

            If you’ve followed this blog for any length of time, hopefully, you have learned a little about the attachment relationship between mother and child.  Bowlby’sand Ainsworth’s now famous studies on maternal attachment have their roots in studies that had previously been completed through animal observations.  In animals, as with humans, the newborn’s instinctual ability to keep close proximity to its mother is a very necessary tool for survival.  While this is typically referred to as attachment in humans, in animals it is known as imprinting.    
            Konard Lorenz’s work with birds, especially ducks and goslings, shaped much of what we know about imprinting today.  He discovered that imprinting must take place during a critical period.  An animal will not be able to attach before this critical period, and, if after this critical period an attachment has not been formed, it will never be able to form an attachment to another being.  Later researchers determined that the critical period ends when the animals starts to exhibit signs of fear. 
            This idea of a critical period of attachment has also been found in human infants.  Bowlby’s work discovered that between birth and three months, babies will interact with anyone.  Between three and six months, they begin to favor individuals with whom they are familiar.  By 6 months, human infants show a clear preference for their primary caregiver, most often the mother, and will likely exhibit separation anxiety and a fear of strangers at 8 or 9 months.  Beyond this, research shows that babies who have started to emotionally attach with their mothers at 3 months are more likely to be securely attached at 12 months and demonstrate less behavior problems at 24 months.  Given these findings, it appears that the critical period of human infant attachment is within the first three months of life.  However, research certainly doesn’t show that this period is as critical as it is in some animals.  That is, babies who do not attach within the first three months of life certainly are not doomed to never attach to a human!
            During Lorenz’s research, he raised orphan goslings.  As he attended to them during their critical period, they actually imprinted on him!  They would follow him in a single line, paying no attention to other geese. 
So, back to the topic of pet week, can our pet dogs and cats attach to humans?  According to at least one study, dogs and their owners experience physical changes as a result of contact with each other.  The study measured levels of oxytocin, cortisol, and insulin in both the dogs and their owners before they were exposed to each other and after exposure after 3, 15, and 30 minute intervals.  These are hormones that measure levels of stress and increase feelings of love and belonging; oxytocin, specifically, is related to maternal attachment in humans as there are increases in oxytocin after childbirth and while breastfeeding.  The researchers discovered after the interaction between human and pet, stress levels and heart rate were reduced.   These are similar to the physical reactions that occur during interactions between a human mother and her infant.  So, it appears that humans may be able to serve as a secure base for their pets! 

Crain, W. (2001). Theories of development: Concepts and applications. Prentice Hall: Boston.
Handlin, L.,  Hydbring-Sandberg, E. Nilsson, A., Ejdebäck, M.,  Jansson, A. Uvnäs-Moberg, K. (2011). Short-term interaction between dogs and their owners: Effects on oxytocin, cortisol, insulin and heart rate—An exploratory study. Anthrozoos: A Multidisciplinary Journal of The Interactions of People & Animal, 24(3), 301-315.

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