The Myth of Unconditional Love

(originally published in Veterinary Forum: July, 2001)

Summer brings fair season and many veterinarians will recognize this scenario. Dr. Goodvet volunteers (or gets volunteered by her employer)to judge the Family Pet Contest at the county fair. As she stands observing all those pets with their doting owners wondering how in the world she can ever pick a winner, a reporter from the local paper materializes beside her.

“What makes people so crazy about their pets?” he asks, his pen poised in readiness over his pad.

Dr. Goodvet scrambles to summon a meaningful reply. However, just then the announcer declares that judging for the Family Pet Contest will begin immediately. Although she considers it unoriginal, Dr Goodvet repeats a refrain she has heard many times. The next day the paper carries a photo of her holding the prize-winning pet bunny with the caption: “Local veterinarian says pets source of unconditional love for owners.”

Even as Dr. Goodvet utters those words, countless veterinarians, shelter workers, and those in other animal-related professions worldwide will probably identify pets as a source of unconditional love, too. However, does such a connection truly exist or do veterinarians and others who perpetuate it do both animals and their owners more harm than good?

Admittedly these questions may sound blasphemous to those accustomed to applying the phrase “unconditional love” to animals routinely, but what exactly do those words mean? Not surprisingly, an informal survey of animal lovers both within and outside of the animal-care realm indicates that most people believe it refers to love without any strings attached. The most common responses includes some variation on the theme, “Unconditional love means that my pet will love me no matter what I do.” These comments elicit a warm, fuzzy image of the animal patiently waiting long hours for its late-arriving owner to return, and then sympathetically licking the sobbing woman’s tears as she tells her pet about her wretched day at work. Although this sounds touching and makes for great media, as they say in the trade, is the “Your pet loves you no matter what you do” message the one we veterinarians want to convey to the public?

Fortunately, when pressed most people who initially parrot the love-without-any-strings-attached response do acknowledge that their love is conditional. All owners impose conditions-such as any time, financial, emotional, and/or physical limits they experience-on any animals in their lives. Moreover, the sooner they recognize these, the greater the chance for a quality relationship. If veterinarians also recognize that such conditions may exist and help owners work within them, this not only strengthens the relationship between the animal and the owner, but also that between the owner and the veterinarian.

Compare this approach to what happens to owners who fail to acknowledge any pre-existing conditions, and adopt or purchase animals hoping to claim some of that unconditional love for themselves. When the animal fails to live up to those owner expectations, the relationship-and the love-suffers, sometimes irreparably so. Ideally, the first time the veterinarian sees that new animal he or she will inject a bit of reality into the fantasy scenario: “He looks exactly like your old dog did as a pup but he’s a lot more active, isn’t he?” acknowledges Dr. Goodvet as the exuberant pup leaps from his frail octogenarian owner’s arms. “I’d like you to work with our behaviorist so we can harness some of that energy.” However, other veterinarians might get so caught up in the love affair between the exuberant pup and his frail owner that they fail to accept that the animal could grow up to be too much dog for that person to handle. “I’m sure it will work out,” they tell themselves. “She loves him so much, she’d never get rid of him.” Perhaps, but why subject an owner and animal to a less-than-perfect existence fueled by the myth of unconditional love when the acknowledgment of a few conditions could create a better one?

Which brings us to the second part of the conditional love equation: the animal. Even as we consciously or subconsciously place conditions on any animals in our lives, they place conditions on ours. Among these we find species-specific physical needs, such as those related to nutrition, shelter, and grooming. Behavioral conditions owners must meet to ensure the animal’s well-being involve an understanding of the animal’s normal and abnormal displays, an appreciation for its unique perceptions, its need for privacy or to know exactly where and how it fits into the human household. As veterinarians, we should strive to educate our clients to recognize any conditions a particular animal brings into the relationship and how to best fulfill them.

Finally, we must recognize how the phrase “unconditional love” impacts us as clinicians. Although the best practitioners and their clients do share a love of animals, idealistically taking that love into the unconditional realm can backfire for veterinarians, too. If Dr. Smith believes that unconditional love means that owners should do everything to save an animal’s life, he’ll feel like a failure when he encounters owners who only want to do x amount. Other times, we must face the opposite: the client expects us to keep doing everything in our power to keep the dying animal alive in the name of their unconditional love, and our definition of unconditional love says we should help the animal die peacefully.

Given all the arbitrary and conflicting definitions of unconditional love, deleting it from the professional lexicon seems the most logical response. When others use the term, asking them to define it will help avoid confusion and miscommunication. Additionally, advance preparation for kamikaze media attacks can help us provide a more meaningful answer than the unconditional love cliche when the opportunity arises. The next time she encounters a reporter, Dr. Goodvet’s “People love animals because they delight in learning about and interacting with members of a species whose needs differ from our own” celebrates the concrete reality rather than some nebulous fantasy that underlies a committed human-animal relationship.