Howard pets: Is my pet truly capable of affection?

Q: Dogs and cats are commonly perceived as showing affection to owners. Are other types of pets -- birds, hamsters, rabbits, snakes -- capable of such affection?

A: That’s a great question. The dictionary defines affection as “fond attachment, devotion or love,” which certainly implies an emotional component. We know that many animals we consider intelligent -- including dogs, cats, primates, elephants, marine mammals, horses -- certainly have and display what we’d call emotions. Our shared mammalian brains and traits contribute to humans feeling a bond with such animals. And I think more people feel a greater natural affinity toward furry warm-blooded critters than scaly, cold-blooded ones.

I’ve seen what we’d recognize as affection toward their owners from rabbits, pocket pets (such as gerbils and hamsters) and birds. Reptiles are a different story, and I’m not sure “affection” is the right word — although a quick search turned up assorted online forums in which reptile fanciers pondered this very question, and many iguana, gecko and snake owners swear their pets respond to their presence.

Compared to humans, most animals have more acute senses, which evolved because they were essential to survival in the wild, enabling them to find food, mates and safe habitats, while avoiding predators. When they come to live in our homes, those survival tools become less essential, since we feed them and keep them safe. But a snake, for instance, which senses and seeks warmth, may routinely curl up in its owner’s lap. And a snake would likely know the scent of the person who feeds it and might favor that person’s presence. Is that affection? We’ll let our readers decide.  ogs and cats are commonly perceived as showing affection to owners.


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