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.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q. I receive loads of press releases and read lots of headlines about how pets make us healthy. But the science is quite a bit more fuzzy, right?
A. There is evidence that interacting with pets does reduce people’s stress, provided the pet is behaving properly. Good interactions do have quite a profound effect, causing changes in oxytocin and in beta endorphins. Those are actual changes going on in the body of somebody who is stroking a friendly dog. So that’s the upside. The downside is that pets, real pets that actually live with people, cause stress and expense and all sorts of other things that can cause arguments within the family. And if you take humanity as a whole, I suspect that those two things kind of balance out. For every paper that says that pets make you live longer or that they make people healthier, many other reports — particularly those that come from medical professionals, who don’t really have a stake in the field — that find no effect or actually negative effects. The reporting bias is in favor of the good ones, so the study that showed that cat owners were usually more depressed than people who don’t have any pets didn’t rate any headlines. So pet-keeping as a habit, averaged out, is probably not having any major effect on health in either direction. If the dog gets people out and about and likes energetic exercise, then there are probably health benefits. But they’re not just going to come as part of the package.
Q. What’s the harm if people have mistaken beliefs about pets? Lots of animals need homes.
A. 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. 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.
Q. These days, we spend lots of money to keep pets alive, we send them to spas and we buy them furniture. How did things go from pet-keeping to pet indulgence?
A. If you look at accounts of the pets owned by royalty and nobility back in the Middle Ages, you’ll find dogs and cats and monkeys and birds that were treated very, very well and fed very choice food. They weren’t dressed up for Halloween, because Halloween hadn’t been invented, but I think the habit of doing this is actually quite ancient. It’s much more widespread now just because people have the resources.