Why do we have pets
Innate fascination and cultural norms influence the human tendency towards adopting companion animals.
Human animal bonds can be powerful resources for social support. However, the extent to which they are effective depends on the strength and quality of the bond.
Owners report that pets make them happier, and give their lives more meaning. How people interact with their pets can provide a window to human desires and needs.
I received a puppy for my 10th Birthday. I was shocked, because I had always wanted a puppy. I was also so happy that I burst out in tears. Happy, the beagle I had, charmed me and everyone else for 14 years. All of us who knew him grieved his death, just as we would do for a loved one. In the United States, two thirds of households keep a companion animal. Even though these animals may have scales, feathers, fins, or fur, they are often considered family. In 2017, we spent $69 billion and countless hours on our animals.
Since 1950, psychologists have tried to understand the attraction of animal companionship. They hope to discover why we are so invested in these creatures. In the process, anthrozoologists–scientists who study human-animal relationships–have more broadly discovered a window into human sociality. Animals can help us understand how identity, nurturing and support play out in relationships. Pauleen Bennett, an anthropozoologist at La Trobe University (Australia), says it’s all about the psychology of humans. “Pets fill our need for social connection.”
Scientists have found that, although the reasons for owning a pet can be as different as a Golden Retriever or a goldfish – there are some threads in common between people and their pets. Animals may attract us subconsciously, driven by social and biological forces we don’t fully understand. The emotional bond between pet owners and their pets can also bring various benefits. These range from reduced stress to new adventures. We may also learn more about human attachments by learning more about our pets.
Our attraction to animals is partly innate. When given the choice, Vanessa LoBue, Rutgers University psychologist, and her colleagues found that toddlers aged one to three spend more time with animals, whether fish, hamsters or spiders.
Even humans have brain cells that are specialized for recognizing animals. Researchers at the Allen Institute for Brain Science, Seattle, led by Christof Kotch (who also sits on the Scientific American board of advisors), have discovered neurons in the amygdala – an area involved in emotions – that respond to animal images. The 2011 discovery suggests that animals can evoke powerful emotions in us.
Animals seem able to tap into the human desire for cuteness, which may motivate parents to do a good job. Researchers have noticed for years that humans have an inborn positive response to creatures with features similar to infants, such as wide-eyed, broad-foreheads, and large head to body ratios.
To better understand how cuteness affects people, Hiroshi Nittono and his colleagues at Hiroshima University, Japan, published a series in 2012 of experiments where 132 college students searched for a number in numerical matrices, or lifted small objects out of tiny holes with tweezers. After viewing a series photographs, participants were asked to perform the motor or attention task a second time.
Nittono’s team found that the students who were shown adult animals, or foods — stimuli they had previously rated as pleasing but not cute — did not improve between trials. Students exposed to cute baby animals performed the tweezer tasks faster and with greater talent, and the visual search task quicker the second time. This suggests that exposure to these creatures encourages focused and attentive behavior. This suggests we are more likely to pay attention to young, fragile infants requiring extra care. Baby animals elicit the same instinctive reactions in us as human infants.
These findings support the theory that our fascination with pets results from what E. O. Wilson, a biologist, has termed “biophilia,” an inherent tendency to focus on life and lifelike phenomena. We may adopt a variety of animals because we are fascinated with fauna. This includes everything from tarantulas and salamanders.
Wilson also acknowledges that personal and cultural experiences influence our interest in animals. Dogs, for example, are very popular in Western countries. However they are not considered clean in traditional Islamic communities. Harold A. Herzog, a psychologist at Western Carolina University, has said that culture is the primary factor in pet ownership. In a 2013 paper, Herzog and colleagues evaluated dog breeds’ popularity fluctuations by using the American Kennel Club registry between 1926 and 2005. The researchers found no correlation between the popularity of a dog breed and its health, longevity, or behavioral traits like aggressiveness or trainability. They argued that the top dog trends were unpredictable and appeared to change suddenly, as though driven by fashion. Three authors, including Herzog in 2014, discovered that films featuring certain dog breeds could boost their popularity for up a decade. In the decade following the release of The Incredible Journey in 1963, which featured a Labrador Retriever as the star, the number of Labs registered in kennel clubs increased to 2,223 per year on average, up from 452 per year during the previous decade.
Herzog extended these findings to include other species and suggested that people might keep pets because others do, a reflection of our tendency for imitation. As further proof, Herzog cited a short-lived craze for turtles in the U.S., a koi fad that swept Japan, and what he called a “brief epidemic of Irish Setters”.