Humans express love many ways, and as a species we are incredibly lucky to be able to use words to both tell others that we love them as well as to tell them that we know that they love us. To love and to be loved is the ultimate goal, after all, right?
Where, then, do our pets stand in this quest to love and be loved? Should we start making Valentine’s plans for our four-legged friends, too? Of course, I emphatically say YES! But, really—can dogs and cats feel love? Do they love us?
We know that pets experience pain, yet, it wasn’t all that long ago when humans refuted that claim. Thankfully, as a nation we’ve progressed (mostly) from painful vivisection techniques and have also recognized as a profession (mostly) that post-operative pets need pain medication. It is a fact that pets feel pain.
And there is no doubt in my mind that dogs feel joy. The look on my dog’s face when she knew it was time for a walk, or the first time she saw the beach just said it all. Pure, unadulterated joy showed from her twinkling eyes to her wide, wild grin each time we got buried in snow in Bucks County, PA. If you have a dog, you KNOW they feel joy.
But the question remains—do they feel emotions like love?
Have you ever tried to describe love? I found myself in that position when discussing it with my then two-and-a-half-year-old son. I told him the same thing I always tell him while tucking him in at night—“I love you.” One night, he looked at me and said, “But what is that, mommy? What does that mean?” It took me aback. How does one describe love? Love is love! I ended up muddling through a definition that included: 1) really liking someone or something, 2) wanting to take care of that person or thing, and 3) wanting to make sure that that person never got hurt.
I’m sure many of you could do better, but I was put on the spot! Still, though, if you think about our pets and love in those terms, I have to say that dogs DO feel love and love us. They clearly really like us. They try to lie in our laps or on our and sleep in our beds just to be near us. They keep us company and they protect us from all threats (both real and perceived!) and some pets are even capable of detecting low blood sugar levels and cancer. I think these things fit my cobbled definition of love.
But really, all I needed to do was look into my dog’s eyes to know that she loved me. And to know that she knew that I loved her. Her contented sigh while lying next to me was her way of telling me “I really like you and I want to take care of you.”
Take care of your dog by spending time with him. Time spent nurtures your mutual affection and bond. If you feel so compelled, go by your dog a special treat on their birthday or Valentine's Day. But if you don’t, he won’t care. That’s the thing about dogs—even when you mess up, they still love you.
As one of my favorite dog-related quotes goes:
“The dog is the only being that loves you more than you love yourself.”
— Fritz Von Unruh