Changing roles of pets in culture - the psychological benefits of dogs and cats
Why do we have pets?
This article is the third in a series about our relationships with our pets. The first looked at how dogs and humans evolved together over the last 40,000 years. Following this, the second looked at how pet owners have changed over the last century. The resulting question is what are the psychological benefits of dogs and cats in our lives?
To summarise, we selectively breed dogs to make them attractive and ideal companions for humans. In return, they live relatively privileged lives as equal members of our families and mostly no longer work for a living.
Why have we turned to dogs and cats for social and emotional support in the last 100 years? We might have held them in affectionate esteem prior to that, but that’s a far cry from sharing our beds with them and calling them our babies.
What has changed in our lives that has made it possible for the human-pet paradigm shift?
What are the physiological and psychological benefits of a dog or cat?
If you don’t have a dog or cat, should you get one?
The cultural context: How are our lifestyles different?
It’s easy to paint a dystopian vision of life today. We talk about our alienation from nature or the alienating aspects of modern life: suburbia, urban infrastructure, technology, and the fast pace of life. Excessive individualism is eroding traditional community connections. Consumerism is blamed for a hollowing out of meaning and values in society.
Our consumer society in the postmodern era is fragmented, less-nuclear, fast-paced, and disconnected. Who could be blamed for the stress in keeping up and struggling to stay sane?
The futurist Alvin Tofler predicted the present in 1971
While he also anticipated the internet, it’s not clear if he imagined the impact of social media from this line of thinking.
How has our wellbeing changed in this context, compared to 100 years ago?
For the sake of brevity, let’s explore 10 implications of the cultural context that were not around 100 years ago:
1. Disconnection from nature is bad for your health and wellbeing.
2. Loneliness and social isolation are linked to depression, anxiety and other mental health problems.
3. Disconnection from community belonging is linked to poor mental health.
4. Social media is linked to Well-being and Depression.
5. ‘Always on’ syndrome and information overload leads to anxiety, fatigue and powerlessness.
6. Multitasking fatigue.
7. The speed of life is linked to cancer, heart disease and other wellbeing complications.
8. The constancy of feeling stressed is bad for physical and mental health.
9. Impact of disrupted, deprived sleep on cognitive performance.
10. Covid has further contributed to anxiety and depression.
Our course, this list is about the experience of culture and society, today. It isn’t balanced here with all the advances in equality, healthcare and lifestyles. But when we look at the benefits of pet ownership, they do seem to address many of these negatives.
What is the ‘pet effect’?
Pets have positive effects on our health and wellbeing. To the extent that they can be seen as reducing a countries health expenditure.
We keep pets today for social support; they prompt positive emotional and physical health. James Serpel broke down the benefits of pet ownership into five areas:
1. Emotional support – turning to others for comfort
2. Social integration – feeling part of a group
3. Esteem support – affirmation of feelings
4. Practical or informational support – reciprocation
5. Nurturance or protect – feeling needed, exercising care
We can explore the psychological benefits of dogs and cats in more detail. Focusing on how they relate to some of the negative effects of modern lifestyles.
The psycho-social benefits of owning a pet
In 2021, during the Covid-19 pandemic in America, a study compared people who owned dogs with people who were interested in getting a dog. There was a significant increase in social support offered to dog owners, as well as a lower depression score. Anxiety or happiness were not different between the groups. The social support from pets has been linked to managing the uncertainty and stress from Covid-19.
People who are more socially isolated or disconnected tend to infer more human-like mental states, characteristics, on other non-human objects than those who are more socially engaged. So, those who are less-socially engaged have a stronger emotional attachment to pets due to this anthropomorphic thinking.
It has been suggested that differences in ‘sociality motivation’, our individual need for social connection, may be a central source of variation in how anthropomorphically we think. The role of pets is to supplement rather than replace the social and emotional needs that come from human interaction. The nature of the pet-owner relationship can take different emotional bonds, such as companionship, or the feeling of nurturing someone. Social experiments indicate that dogs are a positive social catalysis for human interactions.
The psychological benefits of dogs and cats
Nevertheless, a study did show that pet owners were more satisfied with their lives than non-owners. But did not differ on other wellbeing measures, personality measures, emotion regulation, or need satisfaction. Thinking of a pet as a family member offers ‘social support’, improving mental and emotional wellbeing.
Pets also play a positive role in the development of family relationships amongst nursing home residents, by facilitating emotional connections and engagement.
There is growing evidence supporting the positive relationship between youth socio-emotional development and pet ownership, with pet owners reporting lower delinquency and higher empathy than non-owners. Additionally, linked to more expressiveness and independence amongst adolescents.
The presence of dogs also aids in the education of children. A dog in a classroom creates higher social integration and fewer aggressive children. Children that have developmental disorders such as autism or Asperger’s Syndrome are more playful, focused, and aware of their social environments when a dog is presented as an assisted-therapy aid.
The physical benefits from pet relationships
People that own dogs were more likely to exercise more than non-dog owners. With 40-80% of dog owners actively walking their dogs on a regular basis. It is also believed that younger children are less likely to become overweight if they walk their dog regularly.
There are also more tangible benefits, with pet ownership being linked in a study to lowering blood pressure and blood fat levels than those without pets, even though they were similarities in diets and exercise levels.
Petting an animal has been proven to reduce anxiety, this includes soft and cuddly ones or hard-shelled pets. More generally, a pet may be a buffer against negative emotions; and interaction with a pet might generate positive feelings. Petting a dog is not better than sleep for lowering blood pressure, but it appears to be superior to chatting with friends or reading.
Although, wellbeing is a complicated area to attribute definitively to one aspect in your life. Demographics, income, congenital aspects and lifestyle all play a role. It is responsible to note that there are many contradictory studies of benefits across a range of health aspects of the benefits of pets from: BMI, asthma and heart attack recovery. So, the ‘pet effect’ on human mental and physical health has been challenged. The conflicting results amongst pet and non-pet owners on these measures are inconclusive.
More recently, having a pet has been linked to a healthy gut amongst children. Reducing the chances of getting Crohn’s disease later in life
However, a clear majority of studies endorse the wellbeing benefits of having a pet in your life. So, is this relationship balanced?
Is this relationship with pets one sided? Our impact on their lives.
Most people want a cute pet. Pets also evoke the cute response, which we have discussed in detail here. The Baby Schema (also known as Kindchenschema) is a set of infantile physical characteristics such as large, wide-set eyes, round cheeks, and a small chin, were first identified and defined by the ethologist, Konrad Lorenz. Infancy-related colours also prime our emotions to engage and connect.
Dogs have been bred to meet these facial characteristics, not all with the animal’s welfare in mind. This market drive of the ‘baby schema’ is also evident in the evolution of toys. Since 1903, teddy bears have evolved through the ‘natural selection’ of market forces into baby bears. The evolution of Mickey Mouse from a rat-like appearance in 1928 to the rounder features of today is also due to this selection. A study of pet ownership showed that people that purchased dogs with large foreheads, large and low-lying eyes and big cheeks experienced an increase in caregiving behaviour.
To be fair, we’re hardwired from birth to see human faces everywhere; at 6 weeks old we find faces visually captivating. Faces stimulates more enhanced brain activity when compared to other stimuli. The selective breeding of dogs towards neotenic features, speaks of our desire for a human relationship. Dogs have evolved in other ways to engage and communicate with us.
In western cultures, this can mean life and death. We don’t eat animals that have human-like characteristics, but animal-like animals are most likely to be objectified and eaten. However, this is different in specific cultures, e.g. eating dogs or horses is a taboo in most WEIRD cultures.
The shadow of pet ownership
However, there is also a dark side to pets as commodities. With designer dogs being bred for cuteness at the expense of their wellbeing. Hypenated-oodles are now the dog du jour. When dogs are treated as possessions rather than companions, this can impact on the life of the animal. There are also concerns that meeting consumer demand result in ‘puppy farms’ becoming more common.
Are pets something we own, members of our families or companions? Like most questions of this type, it’s subjective. Yet, it’s clear that with the Covid era normalising, many pets are being left at overflowing rescue centres around the world. Suggesting that some are treating them as disposable consumer goods.
So, is a pet beneficial to your wellbeing?
Having a pet in your life contributes a wealth of benefits towards mental and physical well-being. There are clear physical and psychological benefits to dogs and cats in your life.
Psychologically they increase our social interactions, confidence, and self-esteem. They have a positive emotional impact and act as a buffer against stress, uncertainty, and depression. Physically, we benefit from exercise and a reduction in harmful physiological conditions.
We live in a very different world than 100 years ago. In a world that is increasingly less-predictable, dogs and cats offer a reassuring and real presence. Dogs, with their unconditional bond, are an effective panacea for many of the problems we experience in the world we’ve collectively created.
A sentiment summed up by Sigmund Freud in a letter to a friend Marie Bonaparte in 1936: