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Why do we love pets? An expert explains.


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.


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.


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.



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.

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