Love has been defined as an affection of the mind caused by that which delights. It has also been defined as a strong liking or devoted attachment to an individual. Either definition works quite well when it comes to describing the love of a dog or cat for its owner and it is clear that most pets of this type are eminently capable of feeling and radiating love.
Dogs and cats have differing capacities to bond strongly with - or “to love” - their owners. The capacity for love is determined by a combination of natural and nurtural factors. On the genetic side there is the pet's innate capacity for self confidence or lack thereof. On the nurtural side there are factors such as the pet's security as a youngster and the way it is treated by us humans during the formative times of its development. To illustrate how this works, consider the two extremes. Consider first a naturally bossy or dominant dog or cat brought up in idyllic surroundings and protected from misadventure. Such an animal is likely to grow up to be confident, self-assured and relatively independent. This is not to say that such an animal is incapable of love, just less needy in that direction and the love it shows may be somewhat tempered and metered out by the individual. At the other end of the spectrum are pets that are naturally sensitive, high-strung and perhaps even a tad on the anxious side. Such pets raised in inclement circumstances, having to fend for themselves, spend long hours alone or cope with an assortment of caregivers, become fertile soil for development of overly strong attachment with anyone who would treat them kindly and provide psychological safe haven in their otherwise chaotic and unpredictable lives. The ideal situation is somewhere between these two extremes, depending on your penchant.
The Human Input
It is sometimes said that the way to a pet's heart is through its stomach but this is far too simple and cynical an explanation for the powerful bonds that develop between pets and their people. Certainly, dogs and cats see us as their providers, as children do, but simply being your pet's waiter is not enough to engender the powerful feeling that we call love. It may be an odd thing to say but I think that in order to have your pet love you, you must first love your pet. After that, everything flows naturally. If you love your pet, you will nurture and support it in every way, not to merely feed it when it is hungry. You will be concerned about it as it grows from puppyhood or kittenhood into full adulthood. You will protect it against unpleasant or frightening experiences and you will take care of its physical and emotional needs. You will make sure that it is entertained and coddled. You will worry if your pet has to be left alone least it might become lonely or frightened. You'll want to spend time with it, you'll talk to it, you'll pet it, entertain it, educate it and take pride in its accomplishments. Now, as you may or may not know, pets are excellent readers of our body language, intonations, hesitations, and even our mood. If we feel warmly toward our pets, there is no doubt that they will appreciate the warmth and support radiating from us and it will endear them to us. With dogs, the attachment may reach the level of adulation as you can almost literally see love and respect shining in their eyes. With cats, the appreciation may be more subtle. They may seek you out to spend time with you and purr in ecstasy as they indulge themselves in your company.
The only caveats to be considered in this otherwise utopian scheme are that some socially dominant individuals may take advantage of your indulgence to become, well, rather demanding and cantankerous. This is clearly not any point at which we want to arrive so it is important to set limits of acceptable behavior. It is not sufficient merely to be your pet's best friend you also have to be a leader a pet parent, if you will. Sometimes the latter involves making tough decisions that are in the animal's best interests but once they know the ground rules they will love and respect you all the more. Another situation where too much love and too few rules can cause problems is in the case of dysfunctional dogs or cats with separation anxiety. These pathetic animals have often received their only education at the 'school of hard knocks' and are extremely needy. Such characters, if over indulged, may bond so closely that they cannot bear to be parted from their owners. They are pets who love too much. Such pets must be trained to be independent. This can only be done when you're with them because you can't train a pet when you're not there. An owner who loves their needy pet will take the trouble to engage in this independence training because they will know it's in the pet's best interest. Morbidly attached “Velcro™” pets can and should be given a chance to get a life of their own and that is what we should wish for them. But don't worry; independence training won't make them love you any the less!
Love of the type discussed is dyadic, that is, between two parties. It is also a two-way street and changes at either end of the street can affect the bond in the middle. Luckily, complications of one party taking the other for granted or dysfunctional over-bonding are not the rule. The majority of pet owners who have a healthy affection or love for their pet will find that love reciprocated by their appreciative pet. Everybody needs somebody and pets need somebody, too. Dogs especially, as pack animals, need the close social attachment as a foundation for a happy and psychologically healthy life. Cats, while capable of independence, seem to prefer company and know when they are loved. All of this works to the owner's benefit, as there is great joy in knowing that another individual, even one of a different species, has a special place for you in its heart. As the Beatles wrote, “The love you take is equal to the love you make.”