Mar 26, 2012

B(F)FFs in the animal kingdom

by Nikki Logan

Animal people won’t be surprised to hear that a new study has shown animals form strong friendships just like people do--and, just like us, sometimes it’s with someone from the wrong side of the…kingdom.

Recognising and accepting that animals form ‘bonds’ isn’t new but recent studies are challenging our understanding of these and suggesting relationships that are far closer to human friendships than just to the evolutionary family- and pair-bonds traditionally accepted.

Understanding why non-human animals form friendships is important for us to understand why mankind developed similar but much more subtle and sophisticated social systems.
(Blah blah blah. Why is it always about the humans? Why can’t some scientist somewhere study a bunch of animals just because what they do—for their own reasons—is interesting? But I digress…)

The news-streams are saying that evidence of friendship and loyalty are found in horses, dolphins, elephants, lions and rodents as well. And that fostering and maintaining close relationships means less stress and a longer life. Maybe the adage ‘safety in numbers’ works with just two, too. If you have a partner in (evolutionary) crime you can work together to hunt or forage more successfully, sooth and console each other in bad times or watch each other’s backs. Those are the animals that are more likely to survive long enough to create a new generation.

Evolutionary gold!

But…studies are now widening their focus to look at evidence that some animal friendships are done purely for the joy. The same hormone that is called ‘the bonding hormone’ in humans is present (and similarly functional) in other animals. In humans, oxytocin is the ‘hug drug’—its connected to how relaxed and ‘well’ we are and it’s closely connected to trust and generosity. If non-human animals are similarly affected by oxytocin then they’ll have the same, deep seated, evolutionarily necessary yearning for ‘a trusted companion’.

I have such a pair-bond in my household. Between my two dogs who, for the purposes of public consumption I call ‘big dog’ and ‘small dog’. Pictured here.

Previously we had a different little white dog and our big fella got on well with him. He liked having someone to tell him what to do. But when Small Dog came on the scene (someone else’s cast-away) the bond between them was immediate, very different and very sweet.

These two ADORE each other. They play, they ‘kiss’, they forage, they rest—all in close cooperation. And they complement each other perfectly. Small Dog runs the show and Big Dog does the heavy lifting.

But the interweb is full of examples of animals who—despite all the reason in the world not to—form a bond which is so enduring and exclusive it goes past ‘bond’ into ‘BFF’ territory.

B(F)FF - Best (furry) friends forever.

You can see some of them here but here's a small sample...

Golden Retriever, Chino, has a special three-year friendship with a 15-inch koi, Falstaff, who surfaces to nibble on his paws and kiss his nose. Chino wags his tail madly when Falstaff comes to the surface.

Remember ‘Owen’ the baby (zoo) hippo that barely survived the 2010 tsunami? He got pared up with 130 year old Mzee (Galapogos Tortoise) and they’re still inseparable in their new wildlife reserve home in Kenya. Although…a young female hippo has now been introduced to Owen so will she come between the two mates?

A wildlife carer rescued this days old squirrel and cared for it in her home as it grew stronger. Her (pregnant) dog kept stealing it’s house and dragging it over to her own doggie-bed and when her litter was born she invited the squirrel to be one of her ‘pups’. The squirrel eventually got strong enough to be returned to the wild and very occasionally comes to the glass door to visit at the dog.

This young buck stood-guard for weeks over a lone goose who made a nest in a cemetery urn. He filled the role of the (missing) male goose, keeping danger and people away from the nest and, when the chicks hatched, he chased off crows who predate on baby birds. When they got more independant he started wandering off.

Orphaned ele female Themba bonded instantly with male sheep, Albert when they were first housed together when she was tiny. Apparently Albert took a little convincing (ie: chasing) but after some exploratory trunk-foraging in his wooly coat he was sold on her, too, and they became inseperable. Even as she’s quadrupled in size and joined a herd she still likes him hanging around but staff have moved him out from under the feet of the less enamoured elephants and into a safer area.

Do you have a BFFF story? Maybe in your house? Your town? Is it a one-way friendship or do you see evidence of it being reciprocally beneficial?


  1. Nikki, this is one of the many reasons why I love this blog!
    I don't have any BFFF in my life atm, but when we were young, Cindy our Collie would mother every kitten that was born in our house - and there were plenty!
    Wouldn't it be great to be a scientiest and go way, way back to discover that connective element that makes us want and feel great affection. Then we could bottle and distribute it to those who don't quite get it.
    Brilliant post!

  2. Nikki, what a fabulous blog. I enjoyed reading all those stories. When we adopted Boss, the ex pig dog, we had an eighteen year old cat, Lucky, who was not going to have a bar of this stranger. But by the time winter came round she was quite happy to cuddle up with him in front of the fire - as long as Boss understood Lucky was in charge. And when the sad day came that we had to put Lucky down Boss prowled for ages, looking for her.

  3. Hi Nikki! I loved your post. I have a yard full of animals that have paired off. My minature pony Chloe, who lives in the back yard most days, is besties with my Tenterfield Terrier, Missy. They snooze together, laying down, back to back. It's very cute to see. And my eight horses change favorites daily.
    Thanks for a fabulous post - love the pics :)

  4. Nikki, what a terrific post. It's true that animals do bond, not just out of necessity. This post reminded me of a photo my mum used to talk about and I saw just recently. Taken in the days when she was a little girl and pics were only in b&w it shows her cat sitting on a wooden carton with a kingfisher. The bird was wild but used the come to visit. If it got too close the bird would bat it away with its paw but that's all. They used to roost side by side for hours. Not quite a bond but an amazing ceasefire!

  5. I meant of course that the CAT would bat it away with its paw. I know we have some unusual creatuers in Australia but no birds with paws as far as I know.

  6. What a fantabulous post! I went and watched the slide show (and all the videos) on that link for more BFFF. Those pictures you pasted above just make my heart smile. :)

    I've had a lots of dogs in different groupings, and one thing I've noticed is that it's not just about who you're living with / around. Some animals just have chemistry and really bond.

    I had two chocolate labs (who were admittedly brothers) who would get distressed if they were on opposite sides of a door, and stand nose to nose through the screen / glass until I opened it and they could be reunited. Totally inseparable.

    But other combinations of dogs just tolerate each other. That indefinable chemistry is so important in all relationships!

  7. Gorgeous blog, Nikki. And gorgeous photos!

    Okay, getting seriously clucky for a fur baby noq. :-)

  8. Duh, that was supposed to be NOW (not noq...but am wondering what a baby noq looks like now). :-)

  9. awwww, what gorgeous photos, Nikki! I saw the elephant and the sheep on television and it's such an unlikely pairing! There was a story about an elephant and a Labrador dog, too. Very touching to see how devoted they are to each other.

    I love your BFFFs - Big Dog and Small Dog!


  10. Robbie, don't you think that dogs (like men) are so much more attractive when they can be gentle to a kitten? I love it when they let themselves be all smooshy and nurturing...

    I'm sorry that you dont' have a BFFF just now but you KNOW that the right one is just waiting in the wings. For you to be ready.


  11. Oh Sue.... LOL. Boss the ex-pigdog and Lucky the geriatric cat. What a fabulous BFFF story. I think that whole 'I'm barely tolerating your presence' (while snuggling down into your side) thing is so gorgeous...

  12. Helen! What a shame you can't post pictures in comments. I'd so *love* to see your Chloe and Missy all snuggled up.

    My sister's horse was quite the loner until my sister looked after a friends horse for a week or two and OMG they bonded like nobody's business. It was only later they discovered they were distant cousins. She ended up buying the other horse because they were so very happy together. (at least that was her story and she was sticking to it!).

  13. Annie - that's a lovely image. The cat and the kingfisher sitting for hours on that box. Communinig... :)

  14. Rachel - YES! Chemistry must be alive and well in the animal world, too. For certain individuals (even across species) to click like that. The article I quoted would say that they must be getting something reciprocal out of it and I'm prepared to believe that to a point but maybe it really is friendship. All they get from each other is good times and friendship.

    And love the image of your labs nose-to-nose through the glass trying to work out how to undo that predicament...

  15. You must get a baby Noq, Michelle. it will change your life :)

    The absence of fur babies (like human babies) means you can do all kinds of things that might be harder for others. Stay out til all hours, travel wherever you want, whenever you want, go out straight after work...

    But there really is something delightful about watching two critters just love each others company so much...

  16. Sharon - at the zoo I work for they temporarily housed a cow from the 'petting zoo' down behind the rhino yard while the petting area got renovated (or something). Weeks later do you think they could get the rhino and cow separated? Fastest, bestest mates *ever*. And all through a fence.