Owner Perceptions of Animal Welfare, Facts and Emotions
World Small Animal Veterinary Association World Congress Proceedings, 2011
Nienke Endenburg, PhD
Dept. of Animals in Science and Society, Faculty of Veterinary Sciences, University of Utrecht, The Netherlands

Companion animals are so common that hardly anyone can imagine a world without them. The most important motives for getting a companion animal are social ones, especially companionship. And this has a reason. The family used to be an economical and juridical unit for primary socialization. But the functions of the family have changed. Within the family the emotional needs of its members were taken care of. The emotional satisfaction became more important during the last few decades. From Maslow's scheme this can be deduced: when primary and secondary needs are fulfilled, emotional needs become more important.1 More will be demanded of the quality of relationships which will make disappointments inevitable. Those disappointments concern human relationships. Relationships with animals may compensate this.2 By being dependent on humans and by always being there in a nonjudgmental way, animals can satisfy the emotional needs of humans and enlarge the feeling of their well being. And by doing so, pets give us a form of social support. Social support can be defined as "information leading the subject to believe that he is cared for and loved, esteemed, and a member of a network of mutual obligation".3

Research in human medicine confirms a strong, positive link between social support and improved human health and survival. In particular, social support has been shown to protect against cardiovascular disease and strokes, rheumatic fever, diabetes and most forms of cancer, as well as depression and suicide.4

The socially supportive potential of pets, assuming it exists, should therefore hinge on their ability to produce similar effects by behaving in ways that make their owners believe that the animal cares for and loves them, holds them in high esteem, and depends on them for care and protection. But this perceived effect only comes into effect when animals are anthropomorphized. Anthropomorphism can be defined as the "attribution of human mental states (thoughts, feelings, motivations and beliefs) to non-human animals".5 And this is an almost universal trait among companion animal owners. People throughout the world feed their pets on human food, give them human names, celebrate their birthdays and take them to specialist doctors when they become ill.4 This has probably the effect that the health of pet owners improves. Pet owners have been shown to possess fewer physiological risk factors (high blood pressure, serum triglycerides, and cholesterol) for cardiovascular disease than non-owners, as well as exhibiting improved survival and longevity following heart attacks.6,7 And pet owners appear to be more resistant to the stressful effects of negative life events, resulting in fewer health problems and fewer visits to doctors for treatment.8 Also pet owners who report being very attached to their pets tend to benefit more from pet ownership than those who are less attached.9,10 But not all the results point into the same direction and that makes interpreting the results difficult. However, most authorities agree that these results are what one would expect if pets were serving as a form of social support.4

Although anthropomorphism would appear to be responsible for many of the benefits people derive from the company of animals, its effect on the animals are more equivocal. So what does this mean for the welfare of the animal?

Animal Welfare

Protocols for the assessment of animal welfare mostly comprise a checklist of rather static measures, such as those of the initial Brambell Committee freedoms (as for example the Welfare Quality Project11), rather than taking into account the relevance of changes in measures over time. Instead of proclaiming that 'negative emotions such as fear, distress, frustration or apathy should be avoided whereas positive emotions such as security or contentment should be promoted',11 we should direct our attention to determining whether the animal's behavior allows it to meet the demands of its environmental circumstances and whether the environmental circumstances allow the animal to deploy its needs which may be different, depending on age (ontogenetic phase), reproductive period, or season12. In practice, this means that hunger is not necessarily associated with a negative welfare state13; provided that the animal is free to react to this state adequately by, for example, expressing foraging behavior and finding food. Welfare, in this example, would only be compromised if the animal was not allowed adequately to react to the circumstances up to a level which it perceives as positive (i.e., foraging and finally finding food) or if its physiological adaptation were exceeded (not fulfilling nutritional needs).

A definition of welfare therefore can be "The freedom to display normal behavioral patterns that allow the animal to adapt to the demands of the prevailing environmental circumstances and enable it to reach a state that it perceives as positive".14 The question is however whether or not companion animal owners are aware of this and allow their animals to display these normal behavior patterns?

Owner-Pet Interactions

The way humans perceive the behavior of animals, and thus their response to that behavior is going to be dependent on several factors including their attitudes, which are made up of cognitions (e.g., thoughts, beliefs, expectations, stereotypes) and feelings; the role the animal plays for them; the level and type of attachment they have to the animal; all of which will be influenced by their own personality and personal history.

Relationships people have with others are influenced by personality traits and factors such as a need for achievement, the locus of control (i.e., whether one perceives oneself as able to influence an event) and self-esteem. These factors will all feed into attitudes and thus will shape how the behavior of others (humans as well as animals) is interpreted and the responses to that behavior. But for the reasons mentioned above it can be difficult for owners to change their behavior. Those same factors will also influence how easy it will be to change that behavior, even in the light of new information (cognitions). For example, explaining that the welfare of an animal is in some way compromised and the rationale behind a proposed housing improvement may be sufficient to change one owner's behavior. However, for another owner, while they may understand the rationale for what is said to them, the emotional aspects of the relationship may mean that putting it into practice is far more difficult, and in some cases, unattainable, even in cases were an animal is suffering because of, for instance severe obesity. In such cases, the cognitive dissonance set up between the information that is given to them and their own internal state. With cognitive dissonance is meant an uncomfortable feeling caused by holding conflicting ideas simultaneously.15 The theory of cognitive dissonance proposes that people have a motivational drive to reduce dissonance. They do this by changing their attitudes, beliefs, and actions. Dissonance is also reduced by justifying, blaming, and denying.

Cognitive dissonance could also be interpreted in terms of a threat to the self-concept. It may mean that it is easier for them to reject or ignore the advice than to change the emotional aspect of their relationship with the animal and the related attitudes. It may be easier for someone to put up with the aggression from their animal than risk the perceived 'rejection' of the animal's love, or to risk trying and failing to change the animal, and thereby repeating a pattern of failed relationships.

Because it is often easier to make excuses than it is to change behavior, dissonance theory leads to the conclusion that humans are sometimes rationalizing and not always rational beings.

Anthropomorphic selection, that is selection in favor of physical and behavioral traits that facilitate the attribution of human mental states to non humans. Many companion animal breeds effectively have become handicapped by selection for traits that appeal to our anthropomorphic perceptions.4 Owners who are aware of these genetic disorders use all sorts of excuses and reduce in that way the dissonance. Unfortunately the welfare of these animals is often seriously impaired.

Owner Perceptions of Their Animals

Most dog and cat owners consider themselves able to judge whether their animals are happy or not.16 Despite the large body of research on these animals, however, it is not a simple matter to prove whether a dog or cat is stressed or whether its housing and husbandry are adequate. Good welfare means more than good physical health. The mental state of the animal must also be taken into account. Once people realize that these animals, dogs and cats, have their own needs and requirements and respect those in dealing with them, the welfare of all parties involved will be maintained, and in many cases improved, and both owners and animals will benefit from these social partnership.

However the lack of information about animal behavior and welfare, natural needs and the (emotional) needs of owners, make it possible that although they want to do the right thing, the welfare of their animals is at stake.


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Speaker Information
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Nienke Endenburg, PhD
Dept. of Animals in Science and Society, Faculty of Veterinary Sciences
University of Utrecht
Utrecht, The Netherlands

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