Why do we keep pets, or as academics like to call them, companion animals? Actually, this name gives us an important reason – for companionship. Dogs and cats are two of the few domesticated species in the world – animals which are physically and temperamentally suited to live in association with humans. They choose to live with us as much as we choose to keep them – the relationships is clearly mutually beneficial and mutually enjoyable. Pets provide a companion, someone who will always listen and accept what we have to say. They make us feel good by returning the trust and love we give them. We engender responsibility in the young, they encourage exercise, and they are just plain fun to have around!
Where did it start?
Dogs have been associated with humans for over 10,000 years and have been developed into about 400 breeds worldwide. Domestic dogs are a truly domesticated animal in that their breeding, care and feeding are more or less totally controlled by humans. The domestic dogs’ habitat is now amongst humans with many dogs living in the urban environment. The original dogs were probably like the “village dogs” seen throughout south-east Asia, although others believe they were more akin to wolves. In either case, man allowed this potentially dangerous animal to live close by his early camps because dogs cleaned up food scraps and human waste, provided a watch-dog function, and later joined early man when hunting. Obviously, dogs got something out of it also!
Cats have been with us for at least 9,500 years. While the main practical benefit to having cats around is rodent control, cats are as not readily trainable as dogs, and so it is unlikely that mankind deliberately domesticated this independent species. It seems more likely that we tolerated the presence of cats for this benefit, and that cats saw something worthwhile about living close to humans. And, like dogs, mutual enjoyment and even dependence developed over time. Like other domesticated species, dogs and cats are much more comfortable in the presence of humans than non-domesticated species. Unlike sheep and cattle, dogs and cats clearly enjoy the company of humans, and many of us couldn’t imagine life without them!
Are pets good for us?
The answer is unequivocally “yes”! There are now more than a thousand scientific studies from the medical and social sciences literature demonstrating the benefits of pet ownership, or just having them in our communities.
For example, a 1980 report on animal companions and one-year survival of patients after discharge from a coronary care unit was the first to document that after a heart attack, the ownership of any animal correlated with an improved survival rate of 94%, whereas only 72% of heart attack patients without pets survived (Beck and Meyers 1996).
A study of older folk with dementia demonstrated that pet ownership reduced withdrawal from society, improved short term memory, triggered long term memory, enhanced communication skills and reinforced spatial concepts. By being responsible for and taking care of an animal, people, especially the elderly, improve their sense of self-efficacy. (Berkman et al 2000). A report of a community program in Melbourne supporting animal ownership by the elderly and infirm quoted people saying things like: “the only reason I get up in the morning is because of my kitty”. (Eidelson 1996).
Acquiring a pet has been shown to cause a highly significant reduction in minor health problems and to improve the “general Health Score” within a month, and this persists for at least 10 months. Dog owners walked more often and for longer than they did before getting their pet. (Serpel 1991).
Patting or stroking a pet reduces blood pressure (interestingly, it reduces the pet’s heart rate also). (Baun et al 1994)
Companion animals ownership (or their presence in community facilities like nursing homes):
- Reduce stress
- Provide companionship
- Provide a sense of security
- Provide an opportunity for fun, play and relaxation
- Help patients laugh and maintain a sense of humour
- Reduce the burden of illness, separation from family, fear, loneliness and depression
- Improve trust, confidence and psychological well being
Teenagers as well as children and adults report talking to their pets, especially sharing their innermost feelings and fears.
Several important Australian studies have been conducted in Western Australia. In 2005, it was found that “significantly fewer pet owners reported being lonely compared with non-pet owners, with 70.5% of pet owners indicating that they rarely or never felt lonely, compared with 58.3% of non-pet owners” (Wood 2005)
In 2001 a combined study in Australiana and Germany demonstrated that, for the financial year 1999/00, pet ownership saved the Australian health budget $3.86 billion. (Heady et al 2002)
Pets and “Social Capital”
What about pets in the community? Barking dogs are the most common cause of complaint to local government in Australia. The media regularly report dog attacks on people and other animals. People get upset about cats making noise, poo-ing in their gardens, and killing wildlife. Is it all negative?
Social capital has been defined as “the degree of connectedness and the quality and quantity of social relations in a given population” (Harpham et al 2002). It’s a way of measuring the glue that binds us together as a community. Social researchers are very interested in what makes our communities work, and what can avoid fragmentation and the disintegration of our society.
In research from Western Australia published in 2007, Dogs ownership increased the likelihood of their owners meeting other people by increasing the frequency and length of recreational walks and by creating “social interactions that link or cut across different communities or groups”. Results showed that providing pet-related favours (such as feeding the neighbour’s dog) promotes other favours among neighbours, contributing to neighbourhood goodwill and trust.
Perceptions of helpfulness as well as reciprocity between neighbours were higher among pet owners than non-pet owners. Dog owners were almost twice as likely as non-pet owners to feel that living in their suburb gives them a sense of community and 2.23 times more likely to feel loyal to neighbours. 74.5% of pet owners reported rarely or never finding it hard to get to know people, compared with 62.6% of non-pet owners. After adjusting for age, pet owners were also 57% more likely to be civically engaged that non-pet owners.
The benefits of pet ownership documented in this study were not limited to the pet owners themselves. Neighbours also reported on the benefits of having pets in their community. In regards to pet owners walking their dogs, one such neighbour stated “It makes me feel really good to see lots of people out and about. It gives me a sense of community”. (Woods 2007)
Pet ownership is also a stimulus to join (or create) a social group – groups of people who show cats and dogs, dog obedience clubs, or just loose neighbourhood links of those whose pets play together or who care for each other’s pets on an ad hoc basis.
The presence of pets in our households is good for us and it’s good for the community also.
Michael Hayward 2011
The Australian Companion Animal Council http://acac.org.au/ - numerous well accredited studies on the role pets play in Australian society, the personal, social and health benefits of pets, facts about pet ownership, and support materials (eg for renters with pets).
Jackson S 2010 “Pets as generators of social capital: a preliminary review of primary evidence” http://ui04e.moit.tufts.edu/resilience/archive/pdf/vol1/Resilience_Jackson.pdf
American Veterinary Medical Association http://www.avma.org/disaster/default.asp#family 1 Feb. 2010
Baun, Mara, et al. “Physiological Effects of Human/Companion Animal Bonding.” Nursing Research 33 (1984): 126-130
Beck, Alan and Marshall Meyers. “Health Enhancement and Companion Animal Ownership.” Annual Review of Public Health 17 (1996): 247-257
Berkman, Lisa et al. “From social integration to health: Durkheim in the new millennium.” Social Science & Medicine 51 (2000): 843-857.
Eidelson 1996 “Petlinks - a new service for home and community care” Urban Animal Management Conference, Sydney, 1996; Australian Veterinary Association
Harpham et al. “Measuring social capital with health surveys: Key Issues.” Health Policy & Planning 17 (2002):106-111.
Heady B, Grabka M et al 2002 “Pet ownership is good for your health and saved public expenditure too: Australia and German longitudinal evidence” Australian Social Monitor V5, N4, 93-99
Serpell, James. “Beneficial effects of pet ownership on some aspects of human health and behaviour.” Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine 84 (1991): 717-720
Wood, Lisa, et al. “More Than a Furry Companion: The Ripple Effect of Companion Animals on Neighborhood Interactions and Sense of Community.” Society and Animals 15 (2007): 43-56.
Wood, Lisa, Billie Giles-Corti, and Max Bulsara. “The pet connection: pets as a conduit for social capital?” Social Science & Medicine 61 (2005): 1159-1173.