Interspecies relationships are complex and fascinating, and the connection between man and ‘man’s best friend’ is no exception. Humankind’s extensive history of keeping animals began nearly 12,000 years ago when people domesticated animals to perform agricultural labor, produce materials for human consumption, and provide means for transportation. Some species, such as dogs, have changed drastically as a result of their domestication. Janet Browne, a professor of the history of science and co-teacher of the course “Animals In History” at Harvard, explained this phenomenon to the HPR as an instance of “coevolution”: “We have crafted or constructed dogs to do the sorts of things we want them to do, and dogs have taken a similar advantage of us.”
The intimate relationship shared between humans and animals spans thousands of years, and while animals still serve their traditional functions today, they now provide humans with something different: companionship. Pet ownership offers returns to pets and pet owners alike. A study conducted by the American Psychological Association found that for everyday people, pets serve as critical sources of social support, aiding in boosting their owners’ self-esteem, conscientiousness, and wellbeing, while also helping to buffer feelings of negativity. “We use pets to do a lot of different things,” Browne remarked. “There’s a lot of love given to the pet. And if the pet is a mammal, they often give a lot of love back. That’s a very rewarding relationship for everybody concerned.”
It turns out that pet ownership may reward the environment as well. An article released by Canadian Science Publishing claims that “the strong relationship owners have with their pets can influence people’s beliefs and attitudes towards wildlife.” Owning a pet can encourage people to spend time in nature and thus cultivate a greater understanding of and connection to the outside world — and the creatures that live in it. This connection could have positive effects on wildlife and land conservation in the future. Several studies have already illustrated this fact, including one that demonstrated higher levels of “Nature Relatedness” in subjects who had affiliations with animals or owned pets. Pet ownership may prove critical in encouraging environmental stewardship and connecting people to the natural world in the future, as the need for human connection to the environment only grows more dire.
A Growing Trend
Pet ownership is a wildly popular modern phenomenon that demonstrates the natural, possibly even intrinsic, link that exists between animal and man. According to a 2012 survey produced by the American Veterinary Medical Association, in 2012 36.5 percent of American households owned one or more dogs, 30.4 percent of households owned one or more cats, 3.1 percent owned birds, and 1.5 percent owned horses.
A more recent survey published by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals estimated that as of 2016, 44 percent of American households had a dog, whereas 35 percent had a cat. The American Pet Products Association reported that, in total, nearly 70 percent of all American households own a pet. There are now more households with pets than there are households with children.
Rising rates of pet ownership are correlated with the ASPCA’s analysis showing a decline in the number of dogs and cats entering animal shelters nationwide. As pet ownership has surged throughout the years, more and more animals are being adopted from shelters — approximately 3.2 million each year — while roughly a third of all adopted dogs still come from breeders.
The Costs of Companionship
Pet ownership has, historically, been rooted in affordability. While pet ownership today is a much more commonplace activity, it still requires a strong financial foundation. The AVMA reported that the average dog-owning household spends $378 a year on veterinary expenses. Horse owners spend a similar amount — an average of $373 a year — while cat owners pay $191, nearly half as much, in medical fees. Birds are by far the cheapest, costing their owners around $33 per year. This economic flexibility exists primarily in developed countries, where many residents can afford to commit resources to pets and integrate them into the nuclear family. The United States, China, and Russia are the leading countries in dog and cat ownership, which speaks to the financial strength of the people in those countries.
Despite the economic foundation necessary for pet ownership, the rising trend in adoption and pet ownership within developed countries does not show any indications of subsiding. Ninety percent of pet-owning respondents of another APPA survey said they felt their pets were like family. Viewing a non-human creature as part of the immediate nuclear family displays a strong attachment to these furry friends, and it is unlikely that these attitudes will change as time goes on. Rather, pet ownership demographics indicate a promising future for the pet industry.
A recent Forbes article reported that “millennials [had] just overtaken the aging baby boomers as the biggest pet-owning generation,” with 35 percent of pet owners being millennials while only 32 percent are baby boomers. This means that future spending on pet necessities is trending upwards; more and more young pet owners are willing to invest money in luxury pet items such as specialized pet food, grooming treatments, walking services, and, in one case, even a $300 million inheritance.
Differentiating Cultural Attitudes Toward Pet Ownership
The economic prerequisites for pet ownership confine the practice, in most cases, to developed countries. As a result, radically different attitudes toward animals have developed between, and even within, nations. Meg Baldwin, a former Peace Corps member who volunteered in Mpumalanga Province in South Africa from 2008 to 2010, recalled the differences in attitudes toward animals and pet ownership between the United States and her host village. Baldwin told the HPR, “People didn’t have pets. That was not a thing.”
Instead, Baldwin said that livestock were kept for utilitarian purposes, and stray cats and dogs dotted the rural community. “People did have resident dogs who stayed in their fence … and those dogs acted as a security guard for the compound,” she added. “The dog would be shouted at to go away, it wasn’t caring … there was a lot of stick-swinging at the dogs.” This relationship between canines and community members is a stark departure from the typical one observed between pets and owners in the United States and other developed countries.
Despite American enthusiasm for pet ownership, some experts have spoken out about the hazards that arise as a result of the recent “pet animal population explosion.” In his 1975 paper, Robert L. Hummer presented the rising number of pets as a public health problem due to an increase in animal bites, disease transmissions, and other health problems resulting from growing animal populations. The culprits, Hummer surmised, are irresponsible pet owners. To combat the negative effects of irresponsible pet ownership, Hummer advocated for the adoption of several policies, including mandatory sterilization of all domestic animals released for adoption, differential license fees for unsprayed and unneutered animals, and strict enforcement of all existing animal control laws.
Indeed, animals — even dogs and cats — can function not as loyal companions, but instead as threats to human health. Baldwin recalled that in the village she worked in, dogs were considered a hazard. “They themselves are parasites,” Baldwin remarked. “This broad population tended to not have enough resources to have entered that world of excess resources where you can then bring in animals who … are vectors for sickness, infection.”
The Future of Fido
Although a wide cross-cultural variance in attitudes toward pet ownership exists, this variance indicates positive attitudes toward both animals and environmental conservation at large.
In a psychological study conducted in England, respondents who either owned pets or were sympathetic toward pets were less supportive of public strategies that prioritized human needs over wildlife. The same demographic was more supportive of strategies geared toward combating species extinction. Various conservation organizations are developing and executing initiatives — such as National Geographic’s “Last Wild Places” program — that are geared toward wilderness preservation and management. These initiatives are part of an effort to protect and preserve the world’s last remaining expanses of undeveloped land — and the biodiversity they contain. These findings are significant because they provide conservation planners with information about a key demographic that may lend them future support.
Pet ownership may be a crucial step toward increasing awareness of and empathy for other organisms that also inhabit our planet. “Keeping a pet in the home has so many valuable, absolutely crucial, reasons to help human beings understand we’re not the only living beings in the world,” Browne remarked. “We must think of us all in an ecosystem together.” Keeping pets in the home may be a first step toward facilitating this idea within future generations.
For those without the means to own pets, there are other ways to reap the benefits of animal exposure. Hannah Rupert, an education manager at The Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, told the HPR that the positive benefits of animal exposure can be achieved through other means, such as interning or volunteering at animal organizations, shelters, or zoos. “There are programs out there for animals of all different kinds that participate in getting humans to interact and get that socialization, that mental wellness, basically, through reading programs, hospital programs, community event programs, all different things.” Moreover, visiting zoos and other similar organizations can help generate support for wildlife conservation, Rupert said, in addition to raising awareness about animal welfare and adoption agencies.
An Interconnected World
While pet ownership exists as an outlet for love and affection, its power for social change is indisputable. “I think that anytime … people have compassion for the existence of another being, then it gets them closer to being empathetic with the world around them,” noted Baldwin. While there is still much work to be done about animal welfare — approximately 1.5 million shelter animals are euthanized each year, for example, according to the ASPCA — the future global fight for environmental protection may be aided by increased interest in pet ownership.
Moving into the future, Browne believes, means acknowledging that humans are only one of many beings on this planet. “We must understand we are simply a human animal. We’re all animals,” she said. Cultivating this sentiment among pet owners and non-pet owners alike is a preliminary step; mobilizing political action will require work in the years to come.
In the meantime, exposing humans to animal interactions will aid in developing attitudes appropriate for an interconnected world. “Volunteering or interning at places that need the help, like shelters, is a great way to … be helpful and also help yourself,” Rupert said. In an era in which environmental issues are at the crux of social, economic, and political debate, owning pets, volunteering with animal-related organizations, or even participating in one-off animal programs may present a gentle and unified solution to conflicts around environmental justice. “It may not be something that’s always touchable,” said Rupert, “but [it is] still great to get that learning experience.” This interspecies learning and interspecies connection may be the key to a more unified, global future for humans and pets alike.
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