I’ve always been preferential to cats. Which is a good thing, considering how they seem to just show up at your door when you live in the country. We call her Snowy because we don’t know what she called herself before she adopted us. This morning, I found her curled up on our duvet upstairs; one stroke and she rolled leisurely onto her back, exposing her vulnerable belly, inviting me to give her a tummy rub. It wasn’t always this way. It took weeks to entice her to come close enough for us to touch her head; months – and even years – later, we could not convince her to come into the house. As soon as the door closed behind her, she cried piteously to be free. Through several very cold winters, she insisted on remaining outdoors in all kinds of weather, consenting only to make use of the little, unheated shelter we created for her by the back door.

Now, she spends much of her time indoors, basking in a sunlit spot – like the one where I found her this morning. Although she’s not much for meowing (she opens her mouth, but all that comes out is a tiny “aack”), she has found a way to communicate her needs. One of us will turn around from the counter, or open the hall door, and there she sits, gazing up, secure in the knowledge that whatever she needs, we will deliver. Does she love us? It’s difficult to tell. Does she trust us? Without a doubt! How did this happen? How did this creature, completely unknown to us, transition from being fiercely independent – and sometimes vulnerable to cold, hunger and predators – to being willing to trust us to provide food, shelter and companionship?

If you were to Google “the foundation of relationships”, your search would probably result in website after website listing trust, respect and communication as essential building blocks. This is true for all kinds of relationships: family, friendships, work and business partnerships. In fact, many sites offering advice about romantic relationships list trust as more essential to a successful union than love. What can our relationships with our pets teach us about building and maintaining trust in our human relationships?

∙ Trusting relationships take time and patience. In some cases, we try to demonstrate trust in others until they give us a reason not to (trusting our children comes to mind). More often, trust is built gradually, over time. We trust others with minor things before we trust them with important, precious things. Snowy certainly didn’t dive in – she dipped her toe, more than once. It took months of her “testing the water” and of us proving ourselves worthy, before she would allow any sustained contact. 

∙ In our earliest relationships, survival depends on a caregiver meeting our needs for food, shelter, clothing and comfort, and trust is built when those needs are met consistently and predictably. As adults, while we are mostly responsible for satisfying our own needs, we do want our friend, partner or business partner to demonstrate understanding of our needs and to support us in having our needs met. Snowy still has the skills to survive on her own if she needs and wants to – and she seems to enjoy our care and attention anyway. 

∙ A willingness to be vulnerable enhances trust. Accepting help when you need it gives others an opportunity to feel good about themselves – and to show off their skills and talents without bragging. 1 Sharing our innermost thoughts and feelings with a friend or romantic partner – including our flaws and our failings – makes them feel closer to us and strengthens the relationship. At some point – in one of those moments that the door closed behind her – Snowy took a leap of faith, believing that she was going to be okay inside, with us. 

Why would we work so hard to prove ourselves worthy of the trust … of a cat?? While the benefits to Snowy are obvious, we know that the relationship is mutually beneficial. Caring for her allows us to feel competent, compassionate and generous. Furthermore, research has shown that interacting with animals decreases levels of cortisol (a stress-related hormone) and lowers blood pressure. 2 Human-animal interaction can benefit our cardiovascular health and may enhance our immune function. 3 It prompts our bodies to produce serotonin and dopamine – two of the brain’s “happiness chemicals”. Studies have suggested that oxytocin, another of the happiness chemicals, has been found to increase in both people and dogs during positive interactions. 4 Why do we put effort into developing trusting relationships? Because spending time with our favourite “people” gives us a physical and emotional boost. Trusting, healthy relationships – including with our four-legged friends – are good for our health. 

References

  1. https://elizabethkleinfeld.com/2022/12/06/get-better-at-allowing-others-to-help-you-by-understanding-whatthey-get-out-of-it/ 
  2. https://newsinhealth.nih.gov/2018/02/power-pets 
  3. Sandra McCune, Katherine A. Kruger, James A. Griffin, Layla Esposito, Lisa S. Freund, Karyl J. Hurley, Regina Bures, Evolution of research into the mutual benefits of human–animal interaction, Animal Frontiers, Volume 4, Issue 3, July 2014, Pages 49–58, https://doi.org/10.2527/af.2014-0022 
  4. ibid

Written by Libby Ells, MSW, RSW 

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