Pets and you

The science behind why some people love animals and others couldn’t care less

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John Bradshaw, University of Bristol

The recent popularity of “designer” dogs, cats, micro-pigs and other pets may seem to suggest that pet keeping is no more than a fad. Indeed, it is often assumed that pets are a Western affectation, a weird relic of the working animals kept by communities of the past.

About half of the households in Britain alone include some kind of pet; roughly 10m of those are dogs while cats make up another 10m. Pets cost time and money, and nowadays bring little in the way of material benefits. But during the 2008 financial crisis, spending on pets remained almost unaffected, which suggests that for most owners pets are not a luxury but an integral and deeply loved part of the family.

Some people are into pets, however, while others simply aren’t interested. Why is this the case? It is highly probable that our desire for the company of animals actually goes back tens of thousands of years and has played an important part in our evolution. If so, then genetics might help explain why a love of animals is something some people just don’t get.

Micro pigs in skirts.
PanyaStudio / Shutterstock.com

The health question

In recent times, much attention has been devoted to the notion that keeping a dog (or possibly a cat) can benefit the owner’s health in multiple ways – reducing the risk of heart disease, combating loneliness, and alleviating depression and the symptoms of depression and dementia.

As I explore in my new book, there are two problems with these claims. First, there are a similar number of studies that suggest that pets have no or even a slight negative impact on health. Second, pet owners don’t live any longer than those who have never entertained the idea of having an animal about the house, which they should if the claims were true. And even if they were real, these supposed health benefits only apply to today’s stressed urbanites, not their hunter-gatherer ancestors, so they cannot be considered as the reason that we began keeping pets in the first place.

Illustration of a Japanese cat cemetery.
Penguin, Author provided

The urge to bring animals into our homes is so widespread that it’s tempting to think of it as a universal feature of human nature, but not all societies have a tradition of pet-keeping. Even in the West there are plenty of people who feel no particular affinity for animals, whether pets or no.

The pet-keeping habit often runs in families: this was once ascribed to children coming to imitate their parents’ lifestyles when they leave home, but recent research has suggested that it also has a genetic basis. Some people, whatever their upbringing, seem predisposed to seek out the company of animals, others less so.

So the genes that promote pet-keeping may be unique to humans, but they are not universal, suggesting that in the past some societies or individuals – but not all – thrived due to an instinctive rapport with animals.

Pet lovers of the future.
Conrado/Shutterstock.com

Pet DNA

The DNA of today’s domesticated animals reveals that each species separated from its wild counterpart between 15,000 and 5,000 years ago, in the late Palaeolithic and Neolithic periods. Yes, this was also when we started breeding livestock. But it is not easy to see how this could have been achieved if those first dogs, cats, cattle and pigs were treated as mere commodities.

If this were so, the technologies available would have been inadequate to prevent unwanted interbreeding of domestic and wild stock, which in the early stages would have had ready access to one another, endlessly diluting the genes for “tameness” and thus slowing further domestication to a crawl – or even reversing it. Also, periods of famine would also have encouraged the slaughter of the breeding stock, locally wiping out the “tame” genes entirely.

But if at least some of these early domestic animals had been treated as pets, physical containment within human habitations would have prevented wild males from having their way with domesticated females; special social status, as afforded to some extant hunter-gatherer pets, would have inhibited their consumption as food. Kept isolated in these ways, the new semi-domesticated animals would have been able to evolve away from their ancestors’ wild ways, and become the pliable beasts we know today.

The pug – a long way removed from its ancestors.
Penguin, Author provided

The very same genes which today predispose some people to take on their first cat or dog would have spread among those early farmers. Groups which included people with empathy for animals and an understanding of animal husbandry would have flourished at the expense of those without, who would have had to continue to rely on hunting to obtain meat. Why doesn’t everyone feel the same way? Probably because at some point in history the alternative strategies of stealing domestic animals or enslaving their human carers became viable.

There’s a final twist to this story: recent studies have shown that affection for pets goes hand-in-hand with concern for the natural world. It seems that people can be roughly divided into those that feel little affinity for animals or the environment, and those who are predisposed to delight in both, adopting pet-keeping as one of the few available outlets in today’s urbanised society.

The ConversationAs such, pets may help us to reconnect with the world of nature from which we evolved.

John Bradshaw, Visiting Fellow in Anthrozoology, University of Bristol

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Solidarity and compassion

There are two kinds of solidarity. Exclusive solidarity is essentially protectionism. Groups rally to stand up for their own kind and do each other favors such as recommend each other and give each other jobs. It exists on the basis of what divides us, what makes us different from others.

Birds do this too. If you are observant and like being outdoors, for instance go for walks, you may on occasion have seen crows appearing from all sides and forming a circle around a crow attacked by someone’s dog. You can also occasionally hear a lot of loud cackling, look up and see a group of magpies around a cat that has climbed into a tree.

Inclusive solidarity, on the other hand, is much closer to compassion. It does not ask many questions and exists on the basis of what we have in common.

Birds do this as well. If for example you happen to have lived with certain parrots, you may be quite familiar with this. I adopted two quaker parrots in 1994 and they both stood up for my cats if they thought some harm might be happening to one of my cats, for example if I had to stuff a pill into a cat’s mouth and make sure the cat swallowed it, for a very good reason. This happened regardless of whether the cat in question was kind to birds or not.

Birds are capable of compassion because they appear to have something called “theory of mind” just like humans do.

I have seen one of my little parrots quickly step forward and snatch a bit of feces off the other bird. It was stuck to a feather. That other bird never even noticed what happened. This was an act of selfless compassion based on the first bird’s reasoning that she would not want to have feces stuck to her own butt and therefore the other bird probably wouldn’t like it either.

I have two kinds of confirmation for this.

In the past, I have seen that particular bird come running down a series of perches (in a huge cage) and then stop short to avoid stepping into fresh feces.

This particular bird was a pretty intelligent rascal who went through phases of pranks involving feces. For a while, she took great delight in pressing her butt against the bars of the open cage to help her aim and then pelt poop at my shoes whenever I sat reading in a chair near the cage, for example. Poopball. Goal! This means that the bird assumed that I would not like getting feces on me and also that she knew that getting feces on my shoes wasn’t so bad.

This bird has forever changed the way I look at birds. I used to see birds as completely devoid of anything resembling human intelligence. Birds flew, hopped and tweeted. That was it. Oh, and they laid eggs, too. Particularly the flying made me experience them as distant, I presume. Removed. Different.

I couldn’t have been more wrong about that.

I still remember the look that parrot – the longest-living of the two – gave me when I apologized to her for it having taken me so long to realize how intelligent she was. How stupid the two of them must have thought we humans were and how desperate they must have felt at times. “Is she ever going to get it?” She was a very wise one, that one. (She started showing me, by anticipating my moves and wishes and acting on them, all by herself. The first time that happened I was stunned.)

We’d all do ourselves a favor if we could focus more on inclusive solidarity and less on protectionism. I believe we’re slowly getting there.

 

It’s time to re-evaluate our relationship with animals

From the description (6 May 2014):

Lesli Bisgould is Canada’s first animal rights lawyer. For ten years, she acted for individuals and organizations in a variety of animal-related cases in the only practice of its kind in the country. She has fought for the rights of students who objected to dissection in science class, for critics of facilities where animals are held captive, and for changes in the law to ameliorate the legal status of animals. Lesli is an adjunct professor at the University of Toronto’s faculty of law where she instructs a course on animals and the law. Lesli is the author of “Animals and the Law”, the only Canadian law text on the subject, published by Irwin Law. Lesli was the 2012 international law lecturer for Australian animal protection institute, Voiceless – she undertook a 12-stop lecture tour of Australia, comparing the commercial hunts for seals in Canada and kangaroos in Australia. In recent years, Lesli’s full-time work has been in the human rights and poverty law fields, and she is currently the Barrister at Legal Aid Ontario’s Clinic Resource Office.