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Animal Behavior

People and Pets: Why We Love Our Animal Friends

Pets help us be our better selves.

Key points

  • Most American households have pets, which people support and love.
  • Our emotional attachment to our pets is reinforced by the contributions they may make to our personal and social life.
  • Fundamentally, pets are loyal companions, but they also may guard our homes and enforce a certain discipline in our daily routines.

A few weeks ago, a family member joked that her millennial generation thinks of children as exotic pets. Both, as she saw it, are temperamental, expensive to acquire and maintain, insistent, and fastidious in their dietary and domestic preferences. Both have lifespans that frequently exceed those of their keepers.

I laughed of course. But also—and like many jokes—the analogy provoked a certain unease. After all, pets weren’t being compared to kids; the reverse was true. And it made me wonder: Just how important are pets, exotic or otherwise, in our lives?

To be sure, pets outnumber children. Pet industry statistics indicate there are more than 163 million dogs and cats (our two most popular pet categories) in the U.S. By contrast, there are about 73 children under the age of 18. About 70% of U.S. households have a pet; 40% have a dependent child.

Dogs are the dominant pet; 69.5 million households have at least one. Meanwhile, 45 million households have cats. However, the list of cherished animals far exceeds that. Think of horses and ponies, birds, rodents like mice and hamsters, and reptiles of various descriptions. Arguably, even fish and insects qualify. Whatever their species, these are all creatures we care for—and care about. They live in managed confinements, frequently in our living quarters. We give them individual names.

I recall from my teaching days a student seminar project on people’s attitudes to their pets. For the most part, the findings were not surprising, at least for this mostly middle-class group of students. Nearly all the students had pets growing up; most preferred dogs to cats. They loved their animals, missed them when they were away at school, and felt sad when they died. What struck me most, however, was the sentiment expressed by all in the class that their pets were, in fact, “nicer than people.” That is, they were friendlier, more eager to please, and more constant in their loyalty than their human friends.

Why do pets command such admiration? After all, most of us are largely insensitive to the general treatment of animals. Animals raised for their meat and other byproducts frequently endure terrible confinements and slaughtering procedures. Circuses and zoos have been guilty of serious abuses. Many creatures are subject to “experiments” that most of us would not care to witness. Woe to species marked off as predators, pests, or vermin. Still, our own pets—not unlike our own children—are objects of endearment. Let’s consider some reasons.

Animals as companions

In an ideal world, there would be someone waiting for us when we got home from a tiring and stressful day. They would express excitement at our arrival, even greet us with shows of affection. They would listen patiently to our grumbling without comment. They would encourage us to change gears, to move on to this next stage of the day. Pets do all that.

More generally, they acknowledge us. Social animals ourselves, our brains produce oxytocin when our eyes look at those of a friendly dog. The dog’s brain produces the same chemical. We adjust, or “attune” ourselves to each other. Animals read our behavior, as we do theirs. We enjoy being in one another’s company.

Some pets try to get into your lap. Others content themselves with lolling at a strategic distance. That friendly presence steadies us and makes us feel better about our circumstances. So does “petting” and other expressions of affection. Those commonly non-verbal exchanges are elemental to each species. Small wonder that friendly animals keep up the spirits of older adults in assisted living centers or socially withdrawn children. Pets care nothing about our past lives or social pretensions. They simply want decent treatment. Even the grumpiest of us can usually manage a few moments of that.

All of us know well that pets are no longer homebound; they travel with us. Who hasn’t seen pets in pickup trucks, handbags, snuggly carriers, and strollers? “Emotional support” animals are common sights in airports and stores. Our local Walmart is frequented by a man who shops with a pony.

Every instance is a declaration that we need our animals as much or more than they need us.

Jobs we do for each other

Few of us have legally approved “service” animals. We may not carry our pets into stores. But we do rely on them for a variety of purposes.

One of these is protection. Any barking dog may deter an intruder, but “strong” breeds like German shepherds and Dobermans provide another level of security. Especially prominent now are pit bull mixes, which have become the third most popular dog adopted from shelters and the fifth most common reported by veterinarians. Like the mastiffs that were once termed “nanny” dogs, the protective spirit of these animals makes them especially loyal to their host families.

Dogs, large or small, also get us out of the house. They make us exercise. They encourage us in acts of public citizenship. Fifty years ago, few could imagine a pet owner picking up dog waste with an inverted plastic bag in their hand. Welcome to the 21st century.

More generally, taking care of a pet means an unending series of daily requirements. Although we often grumble, that discipline is good for us, and particularly for young people. What child has not heard their parent say, “You can have a pet if you are willing to..."?

The historical uses of pets may have weakened, but they have not disappeared entirely. I have relatives who use dogs to hunt. Cats still manage rodents. Horses carry people about in difficult terrain.

I’ll add one more explicitly “social” function. Pets facilitate contact between people, at dog parks and elsewhere. More generally, the presence of a friendly pet invites conversation from strangers. I’ve had friends who dressed their pets up with a jaunty bandanna or sweater with just this purpose in mind.

Dependable playmates

Who among us has not spent extended time playing with a pet? Young animals may be cute and cuddly, but they equally impress us with their sleekness, speed, and agility. We ponder what they are thinking, especially about us. In play, we experience those capabilities. Surely, everyone has tested their reflexes against those of a cat—and lost. We’ve tossed a ball to a pet and puzzled why they sometimes chase it and sometimes don’t.

Pointedly, this is not some activity we force upon a captive animal. Quite the opposite; they want us to play with them, even bringing a toy within our reach. In such ways, they test out abilities and inclinations, just as we measure theirs.

Even more importantly, interactive play is a basic way that people—and animals—build relationships. Play teaches the boundaries of those relationships, what we can and cannot do with one another. It allows everyone to explore alternating modes of activity and passivity, dominance and submission. In so doing, it cultivates trust. Most of all, it gives participants a chance to enjoy one another’s company, to give each other a “good time.”

Extensions of identity

A key aspect of human identity is the set of relationships we have with other people, those individuals we “belong with” and “stand for.” These are the people we seek for daily affirmation, envision a future with, and steadfastly protect. For many people, that circle of concern includes pets.

Notable is the extent to which people consider their pet a “family member.” (One study reported that 85% of dog people and 76% of cat people make this claim.) Pets inevitably carry a first name; and when they go to the vet, the office may refer to them by their owner’s family name as well.

Acknowledge also the levels of intimacy between pets and their people. Commonly, pets share chairs and even beds with people. We let them “kiss” us on the mouth, when we would deny that intimacy to most of our relatives. We bathe, groom, and cuddle them. Photos of a pet may be on display; occasionally, there is a painting. I’ve heard people describe their pet as their “baby,” despite their also having young children.

Our electronic world makes public those claims of connection. Images and accounts of pets flood social media sites. People use pets’ names for usernames and passwords. Security checks on websites routinely ask the name of a first or favorite pet.

Whether we celebrate them publicly or not, pets are companions on life’s journey. Some have longer histories with us than romantic partners, spouses, or children. They have a constancy that humans struggle to match. Small wonder we mourn them terribly when they die.

As my students insisted, we love our animal comrades. And that love is enveloped in our quest for loyal companionship, meaningful work; exhilarating play, and stable identity.

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