Ours is a pet-loving culture. Researchers spend a lot of time exploring what has become known as “human-animal interactions,” and the pet industry spends a lot of money promoting what it prefers to call the “human-animal bond.” But that concept might have been laughable a century ago, when animals served a more utilitarian role in our lives. And it was “deeply unfashionable” among scholars as recently as the 1980s, as John Bradshaw writes in his new book, “The Animals Among Us: How Pets Make Us Human.”
Bradshaw, an honorary research fellow at the University of Bristol in England, would know. He was trained as a biologist — one who began by studying animals, not people, and not their relationship. But he says his work on dog and cat behavior led him to conclude that he would never fully understand those topics without also considering how humans think about their animals. In 1990, he and a small group of other researchers who studied pet ownership coined a term for their field: anthrozoology. Today, university students at a few dozen U.S. universities study the topic he helped pioneer.
In his latest book, Bradshaw argues that our fascination with pets is not because they’re useful, nor even because they’re cute, and certainly not because they’ll make us live longer. Instead, he writes, pet-keeping is an intrinsic part of human nature, one rooted deeply in our own species’ evolution. I spoke with him recently about his conclusions.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
I receive loads of press releases and read lots of headlines about how pets make us healthy. But the science is quite a bit more fuzzy, right?
There is evidence that interacting with pets does reduce people’s stress, provided the pet is behaving properly. Good interactions do have quite a profound effect, causing changes in oxytocin and in beta endorphins. Those are actual changes going on in the body of somebody who is stroking a friendly dog. So that’s the upside. The downside is that pets, real pets that actually live with people, cause stress and expense and all sorts of other things that can cause arguments within the family. And if you take humanity as a whole, I suspect that those two things kind of balance out. For every paper that says that pets make you live longer or that they make people healthier, many other reports — particularly those that come from medical professionals, who don’t really have a stake in the field — that find no effect or actually negative effects. The reporting bias is in favor of the good ones, so the study that showed that cat owners were usually more depressed than people who don’t have any pets didn’t rate any headlines. So pet-keeping as a habit, averaged out, is probably not having any major effect on health in either direction. If the dog gets people out and about and likes energetic exercise, then there are probably health benefits. But they’re not just going to come as part of the package.
Why is there such a mismatch in public perception about pets as a panacea and the evidence for it?
I think it’s about a puzzling and unusually unique effect pets give to people, which is what I call the trustworthiness effect, which hasn’t received a huge amount of attention in the press, but it has been replicated in studies in several different countries. People with animals, or as simply described as having a friendly dog with them, instantly become more trustworthy in the eyes of the person who’s encountering that person or having that person described to them. I think it actually explains quite a lot — people are believed when they tell nice stories about animals. Whether that applies to news reports as well, I’m just guessing, but I think it’s a reasonable explanation. I think it also explains a lot of the effects of animal-assisted therapy. The magic is actually in making the person with the animal much more approachable. In a senior residence, it’s not simply the seniors who find the visitor a good person to talk to, but the staff finds the visits beneficial as well. It makes the whole place seem a bit more homely. The dog, or whatever animal, is changing people’s perception of the person doing the therapy. This is the trustworthiness factor, and it explains quite a lot of our biases.
What’s the harm if people have mistaken beliefs about pets? Lots of animals need homes.
I’ve spent a lot of my career pursuing the idea of better welfare for household pets, and I can see some potential risks. The one that we’re seeing most is people bypassing the idea that you have to know about these animals. Fifty or 100 years ago, the knowledge of how to look after animals was passed from person to person. Now we are much more insular. And the idea that simply getting a pet is going to make you happy and de-stress you is not going to work if you don’t do the homework about what the animal needs. One trend which I have particular concern about is for flat-faced dogs. People don’t really understand that having a dog that looks very cute is also likely to have breathing difficulties, eye problems and other health issues. I find that quite distressing. We have a lot of knowledge now about how dogs think and how they feel, and yet that knowledge is still not getting through to a particular kind of owner who is just obeying the fashion and their gut instincts. They’re told that this is going to be a really good experience for them, and maybe it is, but it probably won’t be that great an experience for the dog.
Why do we keep getting pets?
Pet-keeping is a human universal, and it’s something that’s been going on for tens of thousands of years. So why do people want to do something which seems completely unproductive?
One answer is that there is this satisfaction — stroking a dog or a cat causes hormones to be released and makes the person doing it feel good. I think you can trace that back to our very ancient history as hairy primates. Grooming one another is the main glue that holds most primate societies together. Now we’ve got other ways of socializing, but somewhere deep in our brains is a need to do this grooming of something that’s hairy, and we can satisfy that by stroking a dog or combing the cat.
We also have to explain why it’s persisted when we’d have more money if we didn’t have pets. I think it used to be adaptive — people who were seen to be good with animals were more accepted by other people in their tribe, and there may have even been some selection for brides and grooms based on affinity with animals. Second, domestication of animals has been a very important aspect of the emergence of what we call civilization. But it’s actually intrinsically improbable, because to domesticate an animal you have to change its genetics. Even nowadays that takes many generations. I think the only way you can account for the separation of domestic animals from their wild ancestors, and the only way they stopped interbreeding, is because the domestic animals, the ones that were slightly tamer, were people’s pets and so were physically and emotionally and culturally separated. So we had the emergence of a domestic dog, which is useful, a domestic cat, which can be useful because it hunts around houses, and goats and sheep that you can herd and milk. Pet-keeping became an advantage, because the societies that were good at it and wanted to do it domesticated animals before other neighboring societies and groups of people.
These days, we spend lots of money to keep pets alive, we send them to spas and we buy them furniture. How did things go from pet-keeping to pet indulgence?
If you look at accounts of the pets owned by royalty and nobility back in the Middle Ages, you’ll find dogs and cats and monkeys and birds that were treated very, very well and fed very choice food. They weren’t dressed up for Halloween, because Halloween hadn’t been invented, but I think the habit of doing this is actually quite ancient. It’s much more widespread now just because people have the resources. But there are other trends going on as well. In the U.K., we are seeing that people are delaying having families. If it’s not possible for somebody to have a child, or they feel that they’re not ready because they haven’t achieved what they wanted in their career, or they can only afford a small apartment and feel that a child should have a house with a yard, then I think that gap can be filled by an animal for a few years. It’s a lot cheaper to buy your dog a Halloween costume than to get an apartment with one more room in it.
What’s the future of pet-keeping look like?
If we assume that affluence continues to spread, which is debatable, I would see many other cultures becoming more keen to have pets. I did some studies 15 or 20 years ago looking at the emergence of the Americanization of pet-keeping in Japan, where increasingly younger people are bringing dogs into the house and treating them more like members of the family. I think that will spread to other cultures. Longer term, there will need to be a rethink because of world resources. Both dogs and cats are carnivores — the cat is a very strict carnivore. The idea that we can continue to essentially farm the world in a way that provides enough meat for dogs and cats to eat, let alone humans, is probably not sustainable. Whether it will be possible for people to continue to keep these animals, or what kinds of substitutes they find if it does become impossible, I think is going to be fascinating, if somewhat painful for the people involved.
What anthrozoology topics need more exploration?
A lot of research in anthrozoology is narrowed down to making it a kind of branch of alternative medicine. There’s a lot of people looking for health benefits, a lot of people thinking of animals as therapeutic agents. I think the more interesting questions are about how people perceive animals, what kind of emotions do animals cause in people, and why do they do that? Pet-keeping is pretty irrational, at least in one way of looking at it. So let’s look at that rather than looking at the therapeutic benefits, which the evidence suggests are far less powerful than the most enthusiastic proponents would have us believe.
Also, how does our relationship with animals living in our houses affect the way we perceive the natural environment? The arguments about the planet and what we should do with it tend to focus on logic. Not enough is made of people’s day-to-day contact with animals. You can educate children a lot more about biology — rather than the stuff they get on a screen — by just pointing out to them, ‘This is a dog. This is how it lives and breathes, how it digests its food.’ There is evidence that if you do that, you not only teach kids to be better pet owners, but you teach them to be more empathetic toward animals in general. We need to have a new generation of people who care very passionately about animals, and I believe that pets are a good way to do that, rather than being second-class animals or even, as in the controversy over cats killing wildlife, perceived as the opposite. I think that’s very unhelpful, because people who actually understand cats are probably the same people who are supporting the conservation of wildlife.