a hand reaches out to pet a cat
Taylor Schott/Daily

Part of the hardships that many college students face while away from home is the potent sense of longing, perhaps for a specific person, place or pet. Since I stepped foot on the University of Michigan’s campus, there was one thing in particular that I truly missed: my cat. Yes, my beloved cat, whose ruddy orange fur would shed all over my black leggings, whose gritty tongue would drag all over my skin, leaving it tingling with abrasions. I never thought being away from him would be so difficult, that I would grow troubled by the way my feet turn cold at night because he cannot lay on my toes to warm them, or that I would grow to miss the chorus of his meows in the morning as if he hasn’t eaten a single day in his life.

It is in these moments that I have wondered if he reciprocates the same love that I have for him, or if the attachment he has for me is merely based on the fact that I feed and shelter him. Is it truly unconditional love?

Well, to form an attachment, there must be an existing behavioral and emotional connection that strengthens over time. Various research shows that animals play a large role in shaping a child’s social, cognitive and mental development. This, in turn, is facilitated by a type of compassion and care that is unique to pet-human relationships.

Furthermore, there is a kind of reciprocal relationship between the two parties. The pet looks to the human as someone who makes sure their needs are met, while the pet provides companionship to their human. And thus, animals often offer a sense of unconditional love that can be found hardly anywhere else, and it is through them that we often look for security and comfort, especially in the midst of hard times

In seasons of change, such as moving to a new state or being at university for the first time, we turn to our pets for a sense of normalcy and consolation, and in the absence of their comfort, we start to feel uneasy. Pets offer a kind of emotional support that is seldom found in other places, which is why we build an attachment to them that lasts a lifetime. 

I’ve had my cat since I was six years old. We essentially grew up together, and I remember him as a playful young kitty who always got into mischief, whether it was sneaking into the nooks and crannies of our kitchen drawers or scratching the fabric of our couch into shreds. I would chase him around the house when he would get into his fits of frenzy, running back and forth from the hallway into the living room. Whenever I came back home in the afternoon, on equally disappointing, frustrating, boring and exciting days, he would be there for me, and I for him. When I was younger, I used to pray that my cat would live forever. And at the time, it seemed like he would. 

The realization that he has been in my life for more years than not, and yet my love for him seems like one that has lasted a lifetime is oftentimes shocking. A part of me doesn’t want to acknowledge his age. He can’t be that old, no, he isn’t that old. Because to me, he is still that kitten, running around in the house. And I am still that girl, running after him.

During fall break, I finally saw my cat after two months without him. I was overjoyed at the thought that I would finally be with him again. While I had seen him in pictures and the occasional FaceTime, it wasn’t the same as in real life.

But while at home for the first few days, I noticed that my cat was acting a little strange. He seemed different, out of sorts. He moved slowly, and when I tried to pet him he would growl in frustration and walk away. He no longer found interest in playing with his toys, and had a glazed look in his eyes when I would throw his favorite stuffed mouse, the one he always used to eagerly chase after before. I was unsure of whether it was the new kitten or the new house that was causing him to act this way, but I couldn’t help but reminisce about the way things used to be. Not only because of what I missed, but also because of what I wanted to believe. I didn’t want to believe that my cat was aging, that he would never be the same kitten that was carelessly running back and forth in the hallway or playing with his toys in the front room. He was different.

The fear of aging is not anything new — it has always existed, and will continue to exist — especially in Western culture. There always seems to be some deep desire to remember the past in the ‘nostalgic’ sense, a return to how things used to be. Even more so than the fear of aging ourselves is the inevitable fear of those we love aging as well. Whether it be grandparents, parents, siblings or pets, being in your world at college makes one realize how life will continue to go on even when we are no longer there. We are unwilling to accept the fact that things continue to change with or without us, because we do not want to accept responsibility for being away during the most pivotal moments.

In recent years, animal psychology has been a growing field that has moved to the forefront. There has long been debate on whether animals can ‘reciprocate’ our emotions, if they are able to express and communicate themselves to us as we do with people, albeit in a more abstract sense. 

One of the focuses of animal psychology is cognition, specifically the behaviors that influence thinking and reacting in animals. Studies have been conducted to examine whether it is true that animals indeed have emotions, and whether the unconditional love we have for our pets is truly innate within them. Research shows that empathy is mostly prevalent with social species, such as wolf packs, herds of penguins and other collective species that develop strong social bonds that are prevalent in communities. In particular, dogs have been researched and studied through MRI machines. These studies have shown that when cued with certain phrases, part of their brains are activated including parts of the subcortex that process emotional information.

The day before I left for break, I was sitting on my couch in the living room, mindlessly scrolling through my phone in solitude. Suddenly, I felt something furry and warm underneath my feet, and saw my cat brushing the sides of my legs. He jumped to his usual spot, kneading the soft maroon blanket with his paws, the vibrations of his purring resonating on my fingertips, his gentle paw on my hand. And as he looked into my eyes and slowly blinked at me, it was as if to tell me that there was no reason for my concerns or worries — that he would always be there for me. 

Perhaps there was no need to rely on the studies, statistics and various research to see if my cat truly loved me. Because it was then, right there, that I knew the question I had for so long been asking.

Statement Columnist Chinwe Onwere can be reached at chinweo@umich.edu.