Many people love birds, cats, dogs, and other animals. They enjoy being around them and feel a pull to help them when they can. Do animals love us back?
Indeed, animals do feel emotions such as joy, love, fear, despair, grief, and others. It is also true that many animals are capable of loving the people who care for them. And they love us, not just because we feed them; they love us as companions.
The needs for positive connections and bonding with others are evolutionary motivations that have evolved over time in social animals and humans. These origins can be traced all the way back to the natural evolution of other social species, such as dogs, cats, and primates (Karandashev, 2022, chapter 3).
Love as Social Bonding Among Animals
Researchers documented substantial evidence that certain animals and humans, during the course of their evolution, have developed the psychological mechanisms of cooperation, prosocial behavior, and social bonding. These evolved mechanisms aided their survival in both nature and society (e.g., Germonpré, Lázniková-Galetová, Sablin, & Bocherens, 2018; Marshall-Pescini, Virányi, & Range, 2015; Hare, 2017; 2006; Fisher, 2004; Rosenblum & Plimpton, 1981; see Karandashev, 2022, Ch. 3 for a review).
According to the findings of neuroscience, a wide variety of animals have the physiological mechanisms that enable them to experience love as feelings of strong affection for another animal or person.
Evolution of Oxytocin
Oxytocin is the hormone of love and social bonding. Along with the evolution of animal and human social behavior and the capacity for social connections, oxytocin has accordingly evolved. This chemical messenger’s roles in the brain are associated with a positive social relationship, attachment, caring, and interpersonal trust (Carter, 1998, 2014; Carter, Williams, Witt, & Insel, 1992; De Boer, Van Buel, & Ter Horst, 2012, see for review Karandashev, 2022, Ch. 3).
Varieties of Relationship Systems in Animals
Various interindividual relationships may exist among social species that live in groups. Many of these relationship systems engage multiple females and multiple males. And the relationships are promiscuous. Others are usually pair-bonded species that live in groups with only one female and one male (Lukas & Clutton-Brock 2013; Reichard & Boesch 2003; see for review Karandashev, 2022, Ch. 3).
Love as Social Bonding Among Dogs
Dogs have a well-earned reputation for being social and friendly with people. Dogs may have descended from wolves. Yet their social behavior has diverged from that of their wild ancestors. Some archeological findings and scholarly speculation point to the possibility that in prehistoric times certain wolf subspecies began to settle in close proximity to human settlements. (e.g., Germonpré et al., 2018; Marshall-Pescini et al., 2015; Morell, 1997; see for review Karandashev, 2022, Ch. 3).
Instead of competing for prey, they started to prefer helping the people who fed them in exchange for their service. Those friendly wolves had a better chance of survival and reproduction. Natural evolutionary selection was favorable to those wolf-dog hybrids for their cooperative tendencies toward humans. The domestication process took place, and those variants of wolves eventually evolved into domestic dogs. Nature chooses those who are best suited to the conditions under which they must survive.
Love as Social Bonding Among Primates
Like other social species, the chimpanzee groups have a variety of different behavioral traits and interindividual relationships. Nevertheless, they all share the characteristics that define them as a distinct “chimpanzee society.” They might also pursue distinct mating strategies and have different mating systems (Chapais, 2011).
Bonding as a basic form of love seems to be present among some primates. Infant primates are hardwired to cling to their mothers, and even a brief separation causes anxiety. They start looking for their mothers. They are overjoyed and excited to be back. It appears that infant primates certainly experience love as attachment (Rosenblum & Plimpton, 1981).
It appears clear that a desire for union and a desire to avoid separation are the fundamental motivations that give them a better chance of survival. Unlike those of other primates, human societies are the only ones where multiple reproductive pairs remain together (de Waal & Gavrilets 2013).