The Truth About Peanuts
July 2, 2006 3:20 PM   Subscribe

Are there any pets other than cats and dogs that have a mutually affectionate relationship with their owners?

I've lived with a lot of animals in my day - hamsters, rats, mice, ferrets, iguanas, parakeets, frogs, a bunny. Despite my enthusiasm for my own pets, and my friends'/family's enthusiasm for theirs, I have to concede that the only ones who ever really gave a shit about us have been our cats and our dogs.

I think the ferret and the bunny acknowledged and tolerated our presence, maybe, but the other ones were little more than bug-eyed poop machines. Like, with my childhood hamsters, it was fun to cuddle them and watch them get all lumpy-cheeked with food and watch them zoom straight off the bed, but I think they always thought of me, if they really thought at all, as a big scary odd-smelling thing attached to a terrifying pink tarantula that would periodically ensnare and remove them from their den to be clumsily stroked and cooed at. At the time if you'd ask me if Peanuts loved me I would have said "Of course!" but I was fooling myself. And if I'd been willing to do some honest soul-searching I'd probably have to admit, reluctantly, that I ultimately didn't really give a shit about Peanuts. After awhile he became squeaky snuffly scuttly room decoration and just another source of annoying chores.

So after realizing all this awhile ago I decided that I'd never again get a pet other than a cat or dog, because I think that mutual affection and awareness is necessary in a pet-owner relationship for me. But I still wonder: are there pets other than cats or dogs - including the ones I named above - that do care about their owners? (Horses? Bigger birds? Farm animals?) Is this merely a factor of greater intelligence? Does it depend on the individual animal? Should I give small-animal love another shot?
posted by granted to Pets & Animals (28 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Certainly. Pigs, Horses, Geese, Ducks, Sheep, Dolphins, Elephants, Primates... I think there are documented cases for all these and I'm sure many more.

That said, is there a reason *not* to go with a dog (or cat)? There are certainly plenty in need of loving homes.
posted by dobbs at 3:25 PM on July 2, 2006

Bigger birds definitely form strong bonds with their owners. But don't get one unless you're willing to commit to a lifelong relationship, 'cause some of those buggers will outlive you.
posted by Justinian at 3:39 PM on July 2, 2006

I own a cockatoo and boy she loves me as much as I love her and she realizes my presence. Loves affection and returns it in spades. But owning a too isn't for everyone because they require much work and time. But with that investment they 'act' more like a dog than any bird I know. They are a 'lap bird'. We have cats and a dog also and everyone gets along. I stress though, they require much attention and work. For more info check out the link.

And yes, my big bird will out live me and will have to be passed on to a loved one.
posted by alteredcarbon at 3:46 PM on July 2, 2006

Jesus H. Christ. Beware that alteredcarbon's link will scare the living shit out of you with insanely loud, squawking birds. :-)
posted by callmejay at 3:56 PM on July 2, 2006

I am not much of a horse fan, but a few years ago we had a horse and I definitely sensed a special sort awareness in him that I've usually seen with dogs. So I'd have to add "horse". But it may not be practical if you have an apartment living situation. I've heard interesting things about pet pigs.
posted by rolypolyman at 4:02 PM on July 2, 2006 [1 favorite]

My husband used to have a parrotlet, which is an adorable, smart and affectionate little bird. It loved to have its head scratched, and it would perch on him and nuzzle him. But, it's a social bird that needs a lot of attention or it despairs. if you get two, they'll keep each other happy, but they'll care less about you. I also knew of a bunny that lived in a preschool, and it would hop over to each kid or newcomer to get some patting and affection. As a result, we got two bunnies, but, alas, they're more like Peanuts.
posted by daisyace at 4:19 PM on July 2, 2006

Response by poster: That said, is there a reason *not* to go with a dog (or cat)? There are certainly plenty in need of loving homes.

Right now, I already have one chubby grey partner-in-crime who more than fills my current quota for big furry lovin'. I definitely plan to have a softball team worth of dogs and cats at some point in the future, but in my current transitional state, he's enough. So I'm asking this question mainly to add to my arsenal of pet trivia, to be used practically someday if not at precisely this moment. In other words, I'm just wondering.
posted by granted at 4:21 PM on July 2, 2006

You say you've been a rat owner, no love from it? My rat had a really tighht bond with me.
posted by Meatbomb at 4:28 PM on July 2, 2006

I've seen very responsive guinea pigs. Hamsters - not so much.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 5:01 PM on July 2, 2006

In my experience, cockatiels & rats seem to have similar feelings towards humans.
posted by tastybrains at 5:11 PM on July 2, 2006

I've heard that pigs and horses do, as well.

I have to disagree with you about ferrets. I've had several over the years (can't stay sane without my weasels), generally three at a time. All of them have sometimes made very clear that they want to play with me, rather than one of the other ferrets, at times, and several of them have been pretty plainly attached to me - following me around like puppies (when awake), preferring to be in a room where I am, acting unhappy when left with someone else, only playing with other ferrets when I'm not available, etc.
posted by dilettante at 5:50 PM on July 2, 2006

I think any animal's relationship to you depends on your willingness to develop a bond with them. My rabbit sees me off in the morning and is often the first one to greet me when I get home. He has run of the first floor of the house (except hardwood floors which he avoids totally) and we treat him like a family member. Leaving him in a cage wouldn't have allowed such a relationship to develop.
posted by tommasz at 6:14 PM on July 2, 2006

I had a cockatoo that was very affectionate, loving and also showed extreme jealousy towards my daughter if she snuggled up to me while Skye was out of her cage. She called me "maaaa" and would call for me through the day while I was at work (or so the neighbors said).

I really do miss that bird.
posted by hollygoheavy at 6:28 PM on July 2, 2006

hamsters by nature are solitary animals, and don't really care about anything other than themselves. some can be somewhat affectionate, but it's not the norm.

as kirth gerson pointed out, guinea pigs are actually pretty affectionate. they're social animals by nature, so they like people and other animals. i've had a guinea pig for about 6 months, and she's great. any time i walk into the room where her cage is, she gets excited, and she likes it when i scratch her head and back. she also begs for food like a pro, which is a little annoying at times, but it's still cute.
posted by kendrak at 6:29 PM on July 2, 2006

I have a friend with a horse who swears by the connection she has with hers. I can't speak to it, but it definately seems affectionate.

Birds do have bonds with their owners - primarily cockatoos, cockateils, budgies and love birds. It's a different kind of relationship than the furry friends we're used to, but can be just as loving. I had a love bird when I was at home (now she's at my parents) and it was different than having a dog, but lots of fun just the same - we gave her a bath, and she walked around the house thinking she was human :)

I think it's like anything in life - a combination of how much effort you're willing to put into establishing the bond, the personality of the participants involved (both animal and human), and lots of other factors. Having said that, yes, the relationship between cats, dogs and humans seems a particularily emotional kind of bond; I don't know if it's anthropomorphism or that they do seem to 'care' for us and exhibit more personalities than, let's say, your standard gerbil. FWIW, the bond between dog and human in particular is extraordinarily precious to behold. Lots of animals have relationships with humans, but with dogs it's just something else. They truly are our best friends.

posted by rmm at 6:51 PM on July 2, 2006

This American Life this week had a great story about a Texas man and his Brahmin bull, Chance. They had a connection.

I grew up on a cattle farm. Certainly most of the cattle couldn't care less about me if I didn't have feed for them, but I really believe a couple did. I'd say many domesticated animals have this potential and some even seem to have a drive for it. Some seemed to respond - coming to their name called, eating from my hand, letting me pet them and yammer on at them, walking with me for long periods. These were usually ones orphaned or abandoned at a young age that my sisters and I had to help along. But one was a full grown mother cow who came up to me regularly for years.

Tommasz makes a good point about the willingness to develop something.
posted by dog food sugar at 6:57 PM on July 2, 2006

There are recent theories about how cats and dogs have rather uniquely evolved in concert with humans, and how we've all trained each other over the millennia into mutually beneficial behaviors.

The domestication process basically favors those behaviors that humans find cute or useful, or that reinforce the sense of bond we feel toward our pets, since our feeling that bond helps the pet make sure it will be fed and cared for (even if it doesn't really feel the bond demostrated by its behavior).

Basically, the dog that runs up to you in the evening and cuddles with you on the couch when you're watching TV and brings the ball over to you while giving you puppy-dog eyes is more likely to have a caring owner than the one that snaps at you when you try to pet it. Keep repeating that cycle over time, especially with something like dogs where you have a lot of selective breeding, and you have an animal who "naturally" behaves in ways that reinforce its owner's bond with it.

That said, I think there certainly are special bonds between dogs or cats and people that aren't just instinctual interactions -- and I have plenty of evidence from my own cat's behavior to prove it! But I thought it might be an interesting point about why animals that now exist almost soley as companions, as opposed to just domesticated work animals, might display a closer bond to their owners.
posted by occhiblu at 7:20 PM on July 2, 2006

Dolphins. There have been several reports of dolphins showing altruistic behaviour, too, such as grouping together to form a defensive perimeter around people that are being threatened by sharks.

Oh, and I once read about a guy who claimed that his praying mantis liked to be snuggle (or at least held), and that whenever he came home it would jump around, or chirp, or whatever a mantis does when it's visibly excited.
posted by gentle at 7:29 PM on July 2, 2006

My family raises thoroughbreds and I have to say a deffinite YES regarding horses.

If you are around them for any time at all, you notice they have very recognizable personalities. Like going to feed the brood mares, recently bred, are usually content but always have the dominant female who always gets her grain first, and she can really be a pain. Then there are the mares who you can call by name, off to the side, and who will follow you around for both protection and companionship.

Studs are studs and act accordingly. They have the whole Y chromosone thing down to a T and will usually run you over, or bite your arm "playfully".

The philly and horse colts are the best. You can tell their personalities very early on. We have had some that are introverted, which usually get passed over for racing purposes, and the high energy colts, who don't care about anything but running and playing. Then there are the colts who want nothing more than to follow you around and help...
posted by Benway at 7:39 PM on July 2, 2006

I'll third (or so) what people have been saying about pigs.

As a hopeful future pig owner, I've done a bit of research and reading, and everything points to genuine love and affection for their families.
posted by anjamu at 9:28 PM on July 2, 2006

Though I'd be lying if I said it was exactly dog-like, I'd have to say that I feel like there is a definite possibility of this type of connection with hedgehogs. I've had two, one when I was very young and one that I've only just recently got, and they're better than rats, mice, hamsters, or guinea pigs in this regard. Their key advantage, however, is that of being very expressive, facially and through body language, in ways that other small pets rarely are. So if you're really looking for a small convenient apartment-style pet, but want one that will notice you and care that you're there (when it's awake; hedgehogs sleep odd hours), you should go to an exotic pet store and see if the hedgehogs strike your fancy. They're really not as sharp as they look!
posted by raygan at 9:37 PM on July 2, 2006

I had a rat who loved to be snuggled.
posted by Kickstart70 at 10:15 PM on July 2, 2006

Another yes to horses. I raise and train Dutch Warmbloods for jumping and dressage. Some I have a special connection with, some I don't - and some that don't have the connection with -me- have it with another human instead. Every one has a distinct, unique personality and different ways it likes to interact with people.

It's an ongoing debate in the horse world whether or not horses actually feel what we feel, in regards to this "connection," or whether it's purely food/reward/gratification-based learned behaviors (i.e., they recognize you as the person who feeds/scratches that one itchy spot they have/whatever, and react accordingly in order to get the desired action from you). I myself remain in the camp that believes horses do in fact feel emotion and show affection toward humans.

The horse I had during my teenage years still lives at the boarding barn, now owned by my mother and used by her and my younger sisters for lessons - and after six years of irregular, infrequent contact with him, I can still walk into the barn, call his name, and he will come to the front of his stall, stick his head out and nicker at me - whereas if anyone else tries, he ignores the calls. He definitely seems to remember.

That said, it's still different, in that horses aren't housepets, don't sleep next to you or at the foot of your bed, et cetera. And they're -danged- expensive.
posted by po at 10:55 PM on July 2, 2006

Since no one's mentioned goats yet: goats. If you bottle raise a kid, it will follow you like a dog whenever it can, and try to sit in your lap.
posted by bricoleur at 8:19 AM on July 3, 2006 [1 favorite]

I wouldn't be so sure that your cat really gave a damn about you.
posted by NortonDC at 9:08 AM on July 3, 2006

Tommasz is quite right - there is a world of difference between a rabbit in a cage and a house-rabbit that has free run of your place.

My parents keep a free range rabbit, Arthur, who is incredibly affectionate. My rabbit, Spike, is not as friendly, but certainly knows who everyone is and is pleased to see me even when he doesn't want food. Both rabbits make the conscious decision to come and be petted, both can be irritable if forced - rabbits make their own choices and as such, when they choose to play nice, the reward is all the greater (something like cats).

Lots more information at the House Rabbit Society.
posted by ganseki at 9:54 AM on July 3, 2006

Another vote for rats, I've had some very affectionate ones.
posted by mmoncur at 2:36 AM on July 4, 2006

Diit Tommasz and ganseki - I've come across a rabbit which came when called, greeted its owners, got jealous, asked to be petted etc.

(And it's worth considering how much pet 'love' is human projection and willing suspension of disbelief. Perhaps having lots of different animals around simply highlights that some are better are allowing that suspension than others.)
posted by Busy Old Fool at 5:03 AM on July 4, 2006

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