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How Your Earliest Memories of a Pet Shape Your Thoughts About Animals Today

Research suggests our earliest childhood memories of pets—and whether they’re happy or sad—influence our attitudes regarding animals as we age.

By Zazie Todd


(Photo: Franck Prevel/Getty Images)

Think back to your first memory of a pet, whether it was your own or someone else’s. Is it a happy memory, or a sad one? Were you interacting with the animal, or just watching? And is it possible that early memories like this influence your attitudes as an adult?

This question was posed by a research team led by Philip Marshall of Texas Tech University who compared earliest memories of a pet, a friend, and an automobile. Two hundred twenty-three people answered the questionnaire, and the results show significant differences in the types of language used, and a fascinating link with attitudes.

Memories of pets contained more references to both positive and negative emotion than memories of cars. “Although pet memories were less positive than friend memories,” the researchers write, “in terms of overall affective language, memories of pets were more similar to memories of friends than they were to memories of the inanimate automobile.”

One reason pet memories contained less positive emotion than those of friends is that some early memories of pets were unhappy ones. For many children their first experience of loss is with the death of a pet. “Put simply, not all pet memories were joyful, with some focussing on pets having been given and then taken away, dying and being buried by the family, and similar other tragic events,” the researchers write.

While they had chosen the car as an inanimate object that would not have much meaning for participants, they soon realized it does have a lot of meaning for some people.

The questionnaire also assessed how much people like pets. Similarities between memories of friends and pets were highest for those whose questionnaire results showed they like pets a lot.

“People who like pets as adults remember pets in the same way that they remember friends, in terms of negative emotion and social language,” the researchers write. In contrast, people who do not like pets had pet memories that were more similar to cars, and different from friends, in the use of these categories of language.

The use of impersonal pronouns such as “it” and “that,” for example, was more common among people who do not like pets.

“I have always considered my pets to be my friends,” one participant wrote. The researchers say that, while this was literal for her, for some participants it was probably more of an abstract relation. This is a fascinating topic for follow-up research.

The memories were also examined to see if they involved interacting with the pet (rather than simply observing). People whose memories were more interactive had more positive attitudes about pets, and were more likely to rate their own memory as positive. References to “I” and “we” occurred more often in the memories of people who also like pets more.

“Interactions with a pet are probably more likely to lead to greater bonding and satisfaction with the pet, and, in the long term, to more positive attitudes,” the researchers write. “Indeed, it is difficult to see how bonding with a pet (in childhood or as an adult) can attain substantial levels in the absence of interaction.”

Most pet memories (83 percent) were based on the participant’s own pet. The questionnaire included written accounts of the earliest memories of a pet, friend, and car, a set of questions about those memories, and a standardized questionnaire to measure attitudes about pets. The memories people wrote down were analyzed using computer-based text analysis.

The average length of the memories was the same for all three categories. Women wrote more than men for friends and pets, but not cars.

One drawback the researchers acknowledge is that some of the written accounts were very short. They excluded the shortest accounts from the analysis. Also, while they had chosen the car as an inanimate object that would not have much meaning for participants, they soon realized it does actually have a lot of meaning for some people. In some ways this makes it a particularly interesting comparison.

Examples of people’s memories are tantalizingly absent from the paper (especially since the word “phenomenological” appears in the title).

The study does not show causality. It is possible that people’s recollection of their early experiences with pets is framed by their adult attitudes.