The Strangeness Of Our Love Of Our Pets

Virginia Hughes looks at the science on why people have pets:

If pet-keeping were a purely (or even largely) biologically driven trait, it would be difficult to explain why its popularity has spiked in the last 200 years, and particularly since World War II — bowie-lapa tiny blip on the timeline of human evolution. As a rough marker of this change [psychology professor Harold] Herzog turns to Google Ngram, a tool that tracks the frequency of words published in books. If you put the word “pet” into Google Ngram, you’ll see a sharp rise since about 1960.

Similarly, if pet-keeping were biological you’d expect all human cultures to do it. While it’s true that most human cultures have pets in their home, the way they interact with them is remarkably variable. Herzog cites a study published in 2011 comparing pet-keeping practices in 60 societies around the world. The study found a large variety of species of pets, including some that seem quite odd from a Western perspective: ostriches, tortoises, bears, bats. The most common pet species is the dog, but even then, people are very different in the way they keep dogs.

Of the 60 cultures surveyed, 53 have dogs, but only 22 consider dogs to be pets. Even then, pet dogs are usually used for specific purposes such as hunting or herding. Just seven cultures regularly feed their dogs and let them live inside the house, and only three cultures play with dogs. The study’s general conclusion, as Herzog puts it: “The affection and resources lavished upon pets in the United States and Europe today is a cultural anomaly.”

Meanwhile, Kaleigh Rogers flags research on the role of animals in helping humans overcome addiction:

Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) is not a new concept. Most of us can imagine how having a therapy dog wagging around a group session helps chill people out and enables them to open up (and there’s  ​plenty of ​research to ​back that ​up). But do we really think that Lassie can help us kick a crack addiction? And when expensive, in-patient treatment facilities are upgrading from a golden retriever to a tank full of dolphins, is it based on research evidence or just a marketing gimmick to stand out from the pack?

Research on the effects of AAT specifically in the treatment of substance dependency is limited, but there is a bit of scientific evidence to back up the claims addiction centers make. In 2009, Dr. Martin Wesley, dean of the School of Counseling at the University of the Cumberlands in Kentucky, was inspired to study the effects of animals on addiction therapy while working at a residential treatment center. He noticed how much his patients took an interest in the critters around the facility. “I would see how the clients would respond to squirrels outside and the cats that would come by and even raccoons,” he said in a recent phone chat. “Someone would bring their dog and these hardened individuals would melt.”

I have to say I understand. My dogs do one thing for me every day: they break my spell of narcissism; they take me out of an exclusively human sphere and force me to see the world, even briefly, from the point of view of another species – which seems, as each day goes by, vastly superior to my own. For this, they trip us out of our ruts of thought as surely as meditation does. Because they are themselves a kind of permanent, living form of meditation: that the universe is about far more than us, if we look up a little, and if, occasionally, we also look down.