About a week ago, as I went to feed my 10-year-old pet turtle Grover a bunch of dried turtle pellets, I looked deep into his eyes and wondered: “Does he even know who I am?” “Does he trust me?” Or even, dare I ask, “Does he love me?”
Obviously he gave me no indication of his affection, or lack thereof: He just chomped on those pellets without any regard for my feelings whatsoever. It was weird to think that I’ve had my reptilian friend for more than a decade now, and yet, I have no idea whatsoever how he views me. Which got me thinking about other stuff: “Can any animal ever truly love a human?” “What is ‘love,’ anyway?” And most importantly, “Why am I eating this turtle pellet?”
My local vet had no idea if my turtle loved me, and told me to reach out to some animal behaviorists instead. And so, I assembled a crack team from around the globe to help me figure out which pets love their owners, and by how much. Every behaviorist I spoke with was reticent to define “love” for any animal, but they did offer up some compelling information on our most common pets.
Armed with this information, I have done my best to assemble a comprehensive list of the most common pets, and their capacity for caring about you. Let’s do this.
1. Dogs: The relationship between man and dog is unlike that of any other pet, period. Having been domesticated 12,500 to 15,000 years ago, they have been bred and conditioned over centuries to be our companions, and simply no other creature compares.
Kyle Kittleson, an animal behaviorist and television host who authored a piece entitled “The 5 Love Languages (For Your Dog)” says, “Touching is the primary love language for dogs,” and that they respond well to touch from you — often, them licking you is their way of returning that touch and affection. He adds that dogs “become incredibly in tune with your social cues, which is why when parents bring home a new baby, they become immediately protective of the baby.” Kittleson adds that even a rescue dog with a traumatic past can bond deeply with a human who treats them right: “If you put in the work to help that dog, and if you can break that fear of humans, they’ll love you forever for it.”
2. Parrots: Whereas dogs will love you like a sibling or perhaps a best buddy, a parrot loves you in the same way that an insecure, obsessive ex loves you. “Parrots are very needy,” says animal behaviorist, fauna manager and wildlife biologist Deji Asiru-Balogun, adding that if a parrot doesn’t get the love and attention they desire, they can become self-destructive by ripping out their own feathers. He explains that parrots are extremely social creatures who need that interaction for their general, and obviously mental, health. “You won’t find parrots alone in the wild,” he points out, adding that only an ill or injured parrot would be flying solo. Since parrot owners often have only one bird, their commitment to them is extremely important, as they bond deeply with their owners.
Asiru-Balogun advises that parrots generally only make good pets if one starts with a young bird, as it will grow very attached to their owner — i.e., they have a hard time bonding with someone new later in life. Know that if you decide to get a parrot, you will likely become their whole world for their ridiculously long lifespan (70+ years!).
3. Pigs: While it’s difficult for me to talk about pigs without mentioning how delicious they are, they are kind of a trendy pet, and a good one at that. Pigs are smart, and Kittleson and Asiru-Balogun find them remarkably similar to dogs. Asiru-Balogun points to a few pig owners in his native Nigeria who walk them like a dog and keep them on a holster, while Kittleson notes that when he was working with a pig recently, he was shocked at how much it reminded him of working with dogs, citing a blind pig who walked off a leash with its owner and responded to voice commands.
As for love, Kittleson says that pigs are naturally highly social and respond well to touch. “I’m talking more than just a pat,” says Kittleson. “They seem to really enjoy getting scrubbed down by their owners, and for a pig to allow a human to do that, it shows a level of trust — with trust comes a level of love.”
4. Rats: I’ll admit that I didn’t know this before writing this article, but apparently rats make pretty amazing pets! As long as you can get over the idea that it’s, well, a rat. “They’re really smart,” says Kittleson, adding that they bond well with their owners. “One indication for comfortability is that rats tend to not stray too far from their owners. So if you’re on the couch with them, they’ll often sit with you, or they may run around the couch, but they tend to never go too far from your side.”
Now, this may just be conditioning, as it tends to go that when a pet rat wanders away, the owner immediately strides over and scoops them up, but there’s no real way to know. Still, the very fact that they choose to stay by the side of their human is significant. “[Rats are] naturally social animals,” notes Sonja Yoerg, who has a PhD in biological psychology and is the author of Clever as a Fox: Animal Intelligence and What It Can Teach Us About Ourselves. Pointing to the fact that rats spend their entire lives in the company of other rats, Yoerg says that they will bond with their owner very well, much like they would with fellow rats… assuming that owner doesn’t also have a cat.
5. Horses: I’m not really sure if a horse is a pet or not. They’re… kind of a pet? But they’re also kind of a car? Anyway, I had more than one of my behaviorists tell me that horses can definitely form a lasting bond with their owners or caretakers, so they should be included in this category.
Horses are second only to dogs in their historical tie to humans, and while some consider them a more utilitarian beast, many are treated as large adult pets capable of forming significant bonds, with many horses only responding to a specific rider. Now, maybe this bond qualifies as “love” and maybe it doesn’t, but it’s also worth pointing to the success many have seen with equine therapy, which not only can help calm a hard-to-reach child or a recovering addict, but also calms the horses themselves, as they’re “known for attuning themselves to human emotion, often reflecting the behaviors of those around them,” says CBC news.
6. Cats: Alright, cat people, before you start in at me with your furbaby nonsense because of how far down the list they are, know, for the record, that I am a cat person. In addition to my beloved turtle Grover, I have two cats at home — Lizzy and Tuluma — and my wife and I keep the ashes of our dearly departed Zima on our fireplace mantle. So yes, even I was a little taken aback by what the animal behaviorists told me.
“Cats view you as their servant,” says Asiru-Balogun (as a cat owner, it was pretty hard to argue with that). While, undoubtedly, many humans have loving relationships with their cats, unlike the animals higher on this list, Yoerg says, “Cats aren’t fundamentally social beings,” as they’re often alone both in the wild and domestically. Cats, Yoerg explains, probably view their owners simply as a food source, pointing to the fact that it’s common for cats to wander away and find a new person to feed them. “It has nothing to do with their homing skills,” she says. “They just don’t care.”
Kittleson argues that there can be some form of love (or whatever it is) from cats, noting that purring may be a sign of affection. Additionally, sometimes a cat will kill a bird or a mouse and deliver it to the feet of their owner, which Kittleson says they do because they regard you as important. “Why else would a cat do that?” he asks. “If it’s a food source, or entertainment, they’d just keep that for themselves.”
7. Ferrets: Yoerg says that in the broadest terms, carnivores like ferrets are more complex and interesting pets, which can have a correlation to how much they’ll bond to a human. “Carnivores have a lot of different behaviors and a lot of learning goes into their thinking all of the time,” she says. Because of this, they’re more adaptable, which includes adapting to being a pet. Additionally, ferrets are very social as well — they’re generally seen in pairs, and if they’re alone, rather than becoming less social, they bond with their owner instead.
8. Hamsters and Gerbils: While not quite as lovey-dovey as rats, Kittleson says that hamsters and gerbils “absolutely have preferences,” referring to how they’ll often take to one person but not another (e.g., they’re cool with the older sister handling them, but they’ll scoot away from the aggressive five-year-old). “Having choice and being able to discriminate are factors that may indicate ‘love,’” Kittleson explains.
9. Parakeets: Asiru-Balogun says these social little birds “bond well with humans,” kind of like their relative, the parrot. They’re not quite as needy as their neurotic big cousins though, perhaps because, as these birds only cost around 10 bucks, they’re often bought in pairs. This means they’re less likely to suddenly turn self-destructive if they catch you looking at another bird.
10. Bunnies, Guinea Pigs and Chinchillas: While Asiru-Balogun says that bunnies can bond well with humans, he adds that they definitely prefer to be with their own kind and won’t bond as much with a human if they have another bunny to be pals with instead. Yoerg adds that, unlike carnivores, simple herbivorous creatures tend to, “just spend their life munching along and so have pretty simple behaviors.” This lack of complexity in their routine leads to a creature who probably won’t be too affectionate. In other words: A bunny is too dumb to love you all that much.
11. Snakes: “Most people are afraid of snakes, but crazy people like me absolutely bond with them, and the snakes bond with us,” exclaims Asiru-Balogun. “Pythons especially can get attached,” he says, pointing out that they allow themselves to be touched quite a bit. He mentions, though, that snakes are very skittish creatures who need a strict routine to gain any level of trust.
While a snake can get comfortable with a human, however, they’re never going to be able to love you like a mammal can. Yoerg says that we’re just more able to bond with our furry brethren than we are with scaly reptiles. Part of this is because they’re so instinct-driven: Whereas a dog or cat may have complex behaviors and interests, a reptile is much simpler and much more “black and white,” says Kittleson, adding that, “they’re only focused on trying to eat and stay alive.” Because of this, a reptile simply doesn’t have much time for love.
12. Iguanas and Bearded Dragons: “Having worked with reptiles, I never got the feeling that they love the people they live with,” says Kittleson. While he can’t say for sure that they didn’t love their owner, he simply didn’t observe it and was unable to point to any recognizable sign of love. He does recall one case where three bearded dragons wouldn’t leave the side of their owner, but follows up by wondering, “Is that love? I don’t know. I’m not even sure if I’ve ever been in love, but it’s notable that they were making a choice to stay with her.”
13. Turtles: Sadly, my love for Grover is probably completely unrequited. With his simple reptilian brain and lack of terribly interesting behaviors, he probably doesn’t have the capacity to love me. When I asked Yoerg what might happen if I were to suddenly part with Grover after having spent a decade together, she replied, “I doubt he would miss you.”
14. Fish: I had a goldfish once for four years — I named him Harpo (after the Marx brother) and I definitely loved him, but I have no doubt that that relationship was even more one-sided than the one with my turtle. The basic fact is that aside from being simplistic animals, “They’re in water and you’re not, so that’s a pretty big social barrier,” says Yoerg. While Kittleson adds that he has seen some “smart goldfish, and you can train them,” he doubts that there’s going to be any bonding there. Big fish, however, like a shark, absolutely “can bond to a human,” says Kittleson. (I’m assuming that he means they can bond to more than just your severed leg.)
15. Tarantulas: When I started this piece, I pretty much knew that tarantulas would come in last because, well, come on, of course they would. But just to be sure, I reached out to tarantula breeder Chelsea Mann, owner of The 8th Page Tarantulas, who boasts of having approximately 175 tarantulas of about 140 different species.
Perhaps surprisingly, Mann agreed that tarantulas aren’t the most loving little critters. “I have seen absolutely no evidence from my animals that I’m anything more than a shadow or large shape,” says Mann. “A lot of beginner keepers talk about how their tarantula ‘loves’ to be handled, when in reality, it’s simply in wander mode and it has a laid-back enough disposition not to respond to their movements as threatening.” From her experience, Mann says, “Invertebrates don’t have the mental capacity to bond with anything or anyone.” Sorry to break the news to you spider people out there.
While that about covers just how much all our favorite pets actually care about us, Kittleson adds one thing that’s worth remembering: “If people are looking for an animal to love them, they’re doing it wrong. Instead, they need to love the animal, and if you do, I guarantee that animal will love you back.”
Except that, as we’ve just learned, that’s often not the case at all.