When we look into the eyes of our pet, we tend to see a little version of ourselves.
At 17, Nathalee Montano moved from the San Fernando Valley to Santa Barbara to study zoology. Settling into her new life, Montano found a job at a dog boarding facility called Camp Canine.
One thing was missing in her new life away from home—her fluffy, faithful golden retriever named Molly.
“When I moved away to Santa Barbara, I was really depressed,” Montano wrote. “I still hadn’t made new friends and was alone at 17 years old living life for the first time without my animals.”
Montano said in an Instagram direct message interview that while other people were busy partying and going out, that didn’t matter to her. All she wanted was her pup.
“I begged my landlord and my mom to bring Molly to Santa Barbara with me, and by the grace of God, they said yes,” Montano wrote. “We would run and jog about two-to-three miles out of the house in the beautiful hills of Santa Barbara and then would have to find our way back. She was my roll dog, my adventure buddy, my right-hand gal.”
A study published by the American Psychological Association found that pets can serve an essential role in social and emotional support for people. Also, pet owners feel the same type of closeness with their pets as they do with their friends.
The study reported that people with pets are more outgoing and feel less isolated.
Montano’s mother got Molly for her two years after her father died when Montano was 11. Molly died at 13 on Feb. 26, 2020, of cervical cancer.
“Honestly, I don’t know what I would’ve done without that dog by my side,” Montano wrote. “There was only so much we could do, but we had to humanely euthanize her. It was the right thing to do—she was suffering, and it wouldn’t be right to put her through extensive treatment.”
Bioethicist and writer Jessica Pierce said in a Zoom interview that the loss of a beloved pet companion is harder than the loss of a family member.
“I think that with animals, the emotional attachments that we have are without complexity,” Pierce said. “I think our feelings of affection and attachment are unique. I don’t want to say stronger because they’re not, but they are unique.”
Pierce said that there is something genuine and absolute about the love that our pets give us, that even their last moments on earth, they trust us completely.
“I don’t love the phrase unconditional love, but that’s what it is,” Pierce said. “It’s cliché, but what we get from our animals is that they don’t demand much from us. They do ask for reciprocity, and there’s something pure about the sharing of that love.”
Pierce stated that for humans, the reason there’s a biological response to why we love our pets is because of the caregiving instincts. The impulses we have toward our children get activated in particular with domesticated animals as well.
“One of the features of domesticated animals like dogs and cats is that they have what scientists would call pay dimorphic features or like, another word for it is an infantile schema,” Pierce said. “They actually look like Mickey Mouse. They look like babies.”
Pierce explained that if you look at the shape of a dog’s face compared to their cousin, the wolf, the dog has more prominent ears and eyes with a slightly shorter nose. Those features activate the natural biological response to become caregivers.
For Claudia Miranda, a youth pastor at La Iglesia en el Camino, having a pet wasn’t something she had considered.
“I was not a pet lover,” Miranda said. “I always lived in an apartment, so it was never really an option first. Anytime any dog would even get near me or lick me, I would have to wash my hands.”
Miranda said in a Zoom interview that her younger siblings were the animal lovers growing up, and the closest things they had for pets were a bird and a guinea pig. For her, having pets meant extra responsibility that she didn’t want.
However, that changed when her husband John Miranda, also a youth pastor at La Iglesia en el Camino, came home with a black-and- white husky named Mambo.
“The moment I met Mambo, it took me less than a day to feel love for him,” Claudia Miranda said. “First, he was a little defensive, but Mambo immediately just felt safe with me, and therefore I just wanted to protect him.”
John Miranda said in a Zoom interview that those first months with Mambo were challenging because Mambo was a crazy dog that had no sense of obedience.
“So, I thought I’m going to train him, and so far, we’ve built a bond between the two of us,” John Miranda said. “I’m very disciplined with dogs. I treat them like humans in a way where he has to know his limits. He knows that I’m a boundary zombie, and I’m the leader.”
Pierce said another reason why people love their pets so much has to do with society.
“We live in a pet obsessed culture,” Pierce said. “I think in this country and a lot of places, maybe more and more people really rely on companion animals as an emotional support system.”
Raisa Esmeral, a kinesiology major at Pierce College, stated in an email interview that she is someone who deals with a lot anxiety and restlessness. So, having her cats Pepper and Toki in her life is a critical component to her emotional well-being.
“I do have PTSD, and unfortunately, that affects my sleeping pattern and causes really bad insomnia,” Esmeral wrote. “But my cats being cats, they do stay up and keep me company. I found that it does help me with my mental and emotional health because my two kitty girls keep my mind from going to negative places.”
Esmeral wrote that even if she goes through a bad episode, Pepper and Toki never treat her differently or act scared. They stay with her, offering their silent or loud purrs as emotional support until Esmeral feels better.
“I am grateful that they haven’t treated me differently or lost interest in me,” Esmeral wrote. “They both were with me during some bad times in my life, and now that it’s over, I am glad I still have that love and relationship with them.”
Pierce explained that a lot more people live alone than ever before, and because of this, there is more loneliness.
“So, a greater need maybe for other ways to find the emotional connection,” Pierce said. “There are people who just don’t find it that easy to connect with people and, for whatever reason, find it easier with dogs or cats.”
Aleczandra Vick, a vet tech major at Pierce, said in a Zoom interview that when she moved out of her mother’s home, it was a hard thing to leave her cat Samwise behind.
“I had just recently moved, so I haven’t had my cat with me for a while, and I will admit it was hard,” Vick said. “Especially given some other days, they’re very depressive. But, once I got her, I found those depressing days just went away.”
Vick explained that at moments when she feels down, having her cat is beneficial.
“It’s a distraction for me,” Vick said. “She snuggles up with me and demands my attention. It’s a huge help.”
Pierce stated that pets ease tension and anxiety, calming dark thoughts and remind us to be in the moment with them. Our pets distract us to the point that we forget about everything that worries us and can enjoy their presence.
“I believe they are a little Buddhist in the sense that they’re just like ‘be here in the moment now,’” Pierce said. “Stop thinking about what’s going to happen tomorrow. Or what happened yesterday, and let’s just be in the moment.”
Montano said that our pets are just a fraction in our lives, but to them, we are their entire world.
“No matter how far or ugly I felt, no matter how much I was hurting with everything going on, she didn’t care,” Montano wrote. “Molly was there for the ride, and she was there to make everything alright. There’s just something very special about the unconditional love that they have for us.”