The companion animal in the context of a new interpersonal relationship

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Bachelor of Science (Psychology) Honours


School of Psychology and Social Science


Computing, Health and Science

First Advisor

Dr Elizabeth Kaczmarek

Second Advisor

Dr Diedre Drake


Companion animal ownership is prevalent in Australian society and Australian pet owners often regard their pets as family members (Australian Companion Animal Council [ACAC], 2010; Franklin, 2007). Previous research has suggested that the strong emotional bonds people have with their pets could be viewed within frameworks that describe interpersonal relationships (Cohen, 2002; Kwong & Bartholomew, 2011; Nagasawa, Mogi, & Kikusui; 2009). It has been postulated that companion animals may have some mediating effects in family dynamics and could provide important sources of social support that complement human attachments (Beck & Katcher, 2003; Bonas, McNicholas, & Collis, 2000; Melson & Fine, 2010; Tannen, 2004). This concept was investigated in the current study using interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA) to explore the experiences of people who had recently entered an intimate relationship with a partner, who had a pre-existing pet bond. Nine partners of pet owners discussed negotiating boundaries and building togetherness in their new relationships. Thematic analysis yielded three major themes that included strong and enduring bonds with the companion animals, consideration of the pets as important family members and also perceived health benefits of the HAB. It was concluded that there is scope for further exploration of the important roles companion animals might provide within family dynamics and also as mediators of social inclusiveness.

The Companion Animal in the Context of a New Interpersonal Relationship Recent surveys report a high proportion of pet ownership in Australia (Australian Companion Animal Council [ACAC], 2010; Franklin, 2007). It has been estimated that 83% of Australians have owned a pet and that 53% of current non-owners would like to have a pet (ACAC, 2010). Furthermore, it was suggested that Australian pet owners overwhelmingly chose their pets for companionship and 80% of those pet owners considered their pets as family members (Franklin, 2007). Other researchers have found multiple health benefits for pet ownership including improvements in physiological health (Nimer & Lundahl, 2007; Souter & Miller, 2007), providing self-esteem and nurturing opportunities for prisoners (Britton & Button, 2005), buffers against stress (Barker, Knisely, McCain, Schubert, & Pandurangi, 2010; Allen, Blascovich, & Mendes, 2002), assisting people with mental illness (Hart, 2010), alleviating loneliness and depression in adults (Wells, 2009), the elderly (Krause-Parello, 2008) and adolescents (Black, 2012). However the results from these studies are not considered unequivocal (Chur-Hansen, Stern, & Winefield, 2010). Some studies have shown no benefits to healthy persons who live alone with their pets (Antonacopolous & Pychyl, 2010), that pet ownership could be inversely related to health outcomes (Parslow, Jorm, Christensen, Rodgers, & Jacomb, 2005) and that pet ownership has no relationship to some measures of loneliness (Gilbey, McNicholas, & Collis, 2007). In their review of the health literature Chur-Hansen et al. (2010) noted poor methodology and a lack of randomised double-blind trials made it difficult to make causative statements regarding the health benefits of the human-animal bond (HAB).

Theoretical Approaches to the HAB

Given the aforementioned prevalence of companion animal ownership, strength of feeling towards companion animals by pet owners and the possible health benefits of the HAB, there remains a relatively small body of psychological literature exploring the roles that Companion Animals in Interpersonal Relationships companion animals play in our society. There are conflicting reports on the strength, value and underlying factors that describe HAB’s. It has also been suggested that improvements in understanding the HAB from a researched theoretical perspective could help guide future research and elucidate the contradictory findings in this area (Peacock, Chur-Hansen, & Winefield, 2012). Two theoretical approaches used to explore pets within the family system are attachment theory and family systems theory.

Attachment theory and the HAB. Recent empirical data has suggested that maternal behaviour and pair bonding is mediated by changes in certain neuropeptides such as oxytocin and arganine vasopressin in mammals (Carter, 1998) and humans (Nagasawa, Okabe, Mogi, & Kikusui, 2012). Researchers have extended this physiological expression of attachment and maternal behaviour to the HAB and found some initial support for a relationship between nurturing factors in the HAB and hormonal expression (Handlin, Nilsson, Ejdebäck, Hydrbring-Sandberg, & Üvnas-Moberg, 2012; Nagasawa, Mogi, & Kikusui, 2009). Concurrent to physiological studies on HAB attachment it has been suggested that companion animals could meet the criteria for psychological attachment (Beck & Madresh, 2008; Kurdek, 2009; Zilcha-Mano, Mikulincer, & Shaver, 2011). However, it is suggested that a number of individual differences exist in the approach that people have towards companion animals including gender (Herzog, 2007), urban or rural location (Black, 2012), ethnicity and religious affiliations (Risley-Curtiss, Holley, & Kodiene, 2011), age (Chur-Hansen, Winefield, & Beckwith, 2008; Stallones et al., 1990) and occupation (Signal & Taylor, 2007). Importantly, theories of human attachment may not readily translate to the domain of the HAB (Zilcha-Mano et al., 2011), hence transferring interpersonal theories of attachment could oversimplify the interactions between people and their pets (Crawford, Worsham, & Swinehart, 2006).

Family systems theory and the HAB. Since the family is the primary social system for most individuals (Bronfenbrenner, 1977; McGoldrick, Carter, & Garcia-Preto, 2011) family systems theory suggests that individual psychology must be viewed within a wider social and environmental context (Bowen, 1976; Magnavita, 2012). Given that pets are reported as important family members, it is suggested that analysis of family systems should not ignore the role that companion animals have within this dynamic (Belk, 1996; Cohen, 2002). For example, Belk (1996) conducted open-ended interviews with 13 pet owners and found themes of family membership and high social involvement with their companion animals. Using phenomenological methods Belk (1996) found major themes of anthropomorphism and inclusion of the pets in family routines. In these interviews, one of the first steps in adopting pets into a family circle included viewing the animals as “quasi-human” (Belk, 1996, p. 132). Anthropomorphism has been found in subsequent research as an important factor in the strength of the HAB (Horowitz & Bekoff, 2007; Waytz, Cacioppo, & Epley, 2010).

Cohen (2002) suggested that pets remain a dimension of family composition that is frequently ignored and poorly understood. Cohen (2002) explored the phenomenon of pets as family and interviewed 201 randomly selected pet owners who were clients of a large New York City veterinary clinic. Although the participants did not initially conceptualise their companion animals as human, Cohen (2002) found that most participants yet described their pets in terms of human family. The participants in this study revealed that the animals often provided them with non-judgmental, emotional and social support (Cohen, 2002). Two limitations of Cohen’s (2002) study were the gender bias, and that since the participants were approached in the emergency department of a veterinary clinic they may not represent attitudes in the wider community.

Bonas, McNicholas, and Collis (2000) had measured relationships between human family members and their pets and found that although human family provided greater support there were areas such as loyalty and companionship in which companion animals provided greater support (Bonas et al., 2000). Similarly, Tannen (2004) used a form of discourse analysis to explore human-pet interactions in two dual-income urban families. It was found the human family members often used their pet in a psychological triangulation whenever there was tension with another family member (Tannen, 2004). By speaking in third person to the animal in the presence of their partner the participants were seen to use the family dog as a social diffuser, as a means of indirectly reinforcing interpersonal intimacy and overcoming tension obliquely (Tannen, 2004). This behaviour is not confined to dogs since recent behavioural analysis on human-cat dyads suggested that pet cats also interact and have effect on participants’ mood and behaviour (Wedl et al., 2011; see also Turner, Rieger, & Gygax, 2003). This and other data has suggested that even though pets do not verbally communicate people appear to include them in conversations, family rituals and family conflicts much like human kin (Cain, 1985; Hirschman, 1994; Tannen, 2004; Wedl et al., 2011). By exploring these familial bonds in the context of dyadic relationships, perhaps another perspective can be gained with which to view interpersonal relationships and help inform clinicians when dealing with this expanded family dynamic in Australian society.


The research reviewed suggests that people often value their pets as companions, social supports and members of their family (McNicholas & Collis, 2001; Turner, 2005). The theoretical frameworks of psychological attachment and family systems were explored as perspectives that may assist further research in the domain of the HAB. Although there are reported interpersonal differences that could affect the strength and quality of these HAB’s, there have been attempts to generalise physiological and psychological health benefits to pet ownership. The frameworks described above indicate that any analysis of this bond (like other relationships) is complex and multifaceted.

Aims and Objectives of the Current Study

It has been postulated that pets can act as mediators within families and provide numerous benefits in a variety of circumstances (Black, 2012; Krause-Parello, 2008; Serpell, 1991). Despite survey data that has suggested companion animals are regarded as family and important forms of social support, a recent document commissioned for the Australian Government was noticeably absent of any policy implications of the mediating effects companion animals could have for loneliness and health in Australian families (Baker, 2012). To facilitate further research in this aspect of Australian social structure the present qualitative research aims to explore the impact companion animals have within a new interpersonal relationship. In this context the following question was asked: What is the experience of a person entering into a new interpersonal relationship with a partner who has a pre-existing companion animal bond?


This thesis includes a literature review component (pages i-26) and research component (pages 27 onwards).

The abstract to the literature review component is as follows:

The study of pets within human social systems is a nascent field of study in psychology and there remains debate surrounding the health and social implications of this relationship (Melson, 2011; Peacock, Chur-Hansen, & Winefield, 2012). In a national survey that explored Australians’ relationships with their pets it was found that over 63% of households had at least one companion animal (Australian Companion Animal Council [ACAC], 2010). Other survey data have shown that Australians overwhelmingly acquire their pets for companionship and frequently view them as family members (Franklin, 2007). Three theoretical frameworks have been posited to describe the bond people have with their companion animals. It has been suggested that pets meet the criteria for psychological attachment and research in this field should be guided by attachment theory (Beck & Madresh, 2008; Kurdek 2009a; Kwong & Bartholomew, 2011). Alternatively, family systems theory has been proposed to provide a perspective of the human-animal bond (HAB) as part of the dynamic interplay between human family members (Albert & Bulcroft, 1988; Cohen, 2002; Risely-Curtiss, Holley, & Wolf, 2006; Sable, 1995). Finally the biophilia hypothesis is a suggestion that humans have an in-built predisposition to associate with other life-forms (Wilson & Kellert, 1993) and that the HAB is an example of positive affiliation towards life (Gullone, 2000; Kahn, 1997; Kellert, 1993). Each theory was critically evaluated and it was suggested future research could explore the contribution to family dynamics that companion animals provide.

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