Why Do We Love Pets?
By Sam Vaknin
Author of "Malignant Self Love - Narcissism Revisited"
The presence of pets activates in us two primitive psychological defense mechanisms:
projection and narcissism.
Projection is a defense mechanism intended to cope with internal or external stressors
and emotional conflict by attributing, usually falsely, to another person or object (such
as a pet) thoughts, feelings, wishes, impulses, needs, and hopes deemed forbidden or
unacceptable by the projecting party.
In the case of pets, projection works through anthropomorphism: we attribute to
animals our traits, behavior patterns, needs, wishes, emotions, and cognitive
processes. This perceived similarity endears them to us and motivates us to care for
our pets and cherish them.
But, why do people become pet-owners in the first place?
Caring for pets comprises equal measures of satisfaction and frustration. Pet-owners
often employ a psychological defense mechanism known as "cognitive dissonance" to
suppress the negative aspects of having pets and to deny the unpalatable fact that
raising pets and caring for them may be time consuming, exhausting, and strains
otherwise pleasurable and tranquil relationships to their limits.
Pet-ownership is possibly an irrational vocation, but humanity keeps keeping pets. It
may well be the call of nature.
All living species reproduce and most of them parent.
Pets sometimes serve as surrogate children and friends. Is this maternity (and
paternity) by proxy proof that, beneath the ephemeral veneer of civilization, we are
still merely a kind of beast, subject to the impulses and hard-wired behavior that
permeate the rest of the animal kingdom? Is our existential loneliness so extreme that
it crosses the species barrier?
There is no denying that most people want their pets and love them. They are
attached to them and experience grief and bereavement when they die, depart, or are
Most pet-owners find keeping pets emotionally fulfilling, happiness-inducing, and
highly satisfying. This pertains even to unplanned and initially unwanted new arrivals.
Could this be the missing link? Does pet-ownership revolve around self-gratification?
Does it all boil down to the pleasure principle?
Pet-keeping may, indeed, be habit forming. Months of raising pups and cubs and a
host of social positive reinforcements and expectations condition pet-owners to do the
job. Still, a living pet is nothing like the abstract concept. Pets wail, soil themselves
and their environment, stink, and severely disrupt the lives of their owners. Nothing
too enticing here.
If you eliminate the impossible, what is left - however improbable - must be the truth.
People keep pets because it provides them with narcissistic supply.
A Narcissist is a person who projects a (false) image unto others and uses the
interest this generates to regulate a labile (unstable; liable to change) and grandiose
sense of self-worth. The reactions garnered by the narcissist - attention, unconditional
acceptance, adulation, admiration, affirmation - are collectively known as "narcissistic
The narcissist treats pets as mere instruments of gratification.
Infants go through a phase of unbridled fantasy, tyrannical behaviour, and perceived
omnipotence. An adult narcissist, in other words, is still stuck in his "terrible twos" and
is possessed with the emotional maturity of a toddler.
To some degree, we are all narcissists. Yet, as we grow, we learn to empathize and to
love ourselves and others.
This edifice of maturity is severely tested by pet-ownership.
Pets evoke in their keepers the most primordial drives, protective, animalistic
instincts, the desire to merge with the pet and a sense of terror generated by such a
desire (a fear of vanishing and of being assimilated).
Pets engender in their owners an emotional regression.
The owners find themselves revisiting their own childhood even as they are caring for
their pets. The crumbling of decades and layers of personal growth is accompanied by
a resurgence of the aforementioned early infancy narcissistic defenses. Pet-keepers,
especially new ones, are gradually transformed into narcissists by this encounter and
find in their pets the perfect sources of narcissistic supply, euphemistically known as
love. Really it is a form of symbiotic co-dependence of both parties.
Even the most balanced, most mature, most psychodynamically stable of pet-owners
finds such a flood of narcissistic supply irresistible and addictive. It enhances his or
her self-confidence, buttresses self esteem, regulates the sense of self-worth, and
projects a complimentary image of the parent to himself or herself. It fast becomes
The key to our determination to have pets is our wish to experience the same
unconditional love that we received from our mothers, this intoxicating feeling of
being adored without caveats, for what we are, with no limits, reservations, or
This is the most powerful, crystallized form of narcissistic supply. It
nourishes our self-love, self worth and self-confidence. It infuses us with feelings of
omnipotence and omniscience.
In these, and other respects, pet-ownership is a return to infancy.
Sam Vaknin ( http://samvak.tripod.com ) is the author of Malignant Self
Love - Narcissism Revisited and After the Rain - How the West Lost the East.
He served as a columnist for Global Politician, Central Europe Review,
PopMatters, Bellaonline, and eBookWeb, a United Press International (UPI)
Senior Business Correspondent, and the editor of mental health and Central
East Europe categories in The Open Directory and Suite101.
Visit Sam's Web site at http://samvak.tripod.com