Pets, they have been with man for hundreds and thousands of years, and still reside with us today. You may have had a pet at some point in your life, a bag of goldfish won at a carnival, a puppy as a Christmas gift, or an adopted rescue. Maybe you know somebody who has a pet. But why are we fascinated by animals and have that desire to keep them? This article aims to find the psychology behind why we like having pets, as well as how pets leave an impact on the mental and physical health of pet owners.
First off, what exactly is a pet? A pet is defined as a domesticated animal kept for pleasure rather than utility (Merriam-Webster, n.d.), and for most cases, this is true. But there are exceptions such as guide dogs for the blind or people who consider some livestock animals as pets.
The “WHY?” in pet keeping
Now let’s start with the first question “why do we keep pets?” According to an article by Herzog (2014), pet keeping is characterized by a long term relationship, while devoting time, energy, and resources to the animal companion with no apparent function, and may be a change within our evolution as it seems to be a form of altruism, but it cannot be explained by kin selection or reciprocal altruism.
But just for a brief explanation, Cherry (2020) defines altruism as an individual’s unselfish concern for other people, and does not feel obligated to help, while reciprocal altruism is taking action to help another and expecting the other to help in return. If we look at it in this regard, we could say that pet keeping is similar but not quite exactly the same as reciprocal altruism.The pet owner keeps a pet for a reason, such as the pleasure of interacting with the pet, and in that regard, the pet owner is already expecting something in return from the pet, even if the return is not as equal to what the owner gives to the pet.
There are numerous theories and hypotheses still being debated on why humans kept animals as pets, such hypotheses listed by Serpell & Paul (2012) are pet keeping as a misdirection of human nurturing tendencies, pet keeping as a mutually beneficial relationship for both pet owner and pet, and pets as a social buffer for one’s social status.
With those mentioned, Herzog concludes the article with the claim that humans possess a mix of innate predispositions and social learning which contribute to the emergence of pet-keeping. An example of this predisposition is that humans prefer some species of animals more than others, with dogs being selected for their more tamed nature and social skills to communicate with humans, while the social learning aspect involves the various cultures of humanity, and how different cultures vary in the concept of “pet keeping” and how it influences what animals are kept as pets.
Now let’s move onto the benefits of pet keeping, we’ve probably heard a testament or two from people that pets are beneficial to the owner. A study from the University of York (2020) claims to have found that having a pet helps maintain the mental health of the pet owner, and that pets also help cope with their loneliness and emotions during quarantine. The study’s data to support the claim is that around 90 percent of the 6000 participants from the UK had at least one pet. The strength of the human-animal relationship did not differ significantly between species, dogs, and cats being the common pets, followed by small mammals and fish.
In another article by Casciotti and Zuckerman (n.d.), pets have been found to have a positive impact on physical health and provide social support. People with cats or dogs are found to have lower blood pressure and a more regulated heart rate. The beneficial social support of pets includes reduced stress as well as encouragement to socially interact with others. Walking with a dog, for example, would encourage one to socially interact more when compared to walking without a dog.
Although we’ve probably heard countless stories of pets being quite the life changer and bringing happiness to the owner, we must realize that pet keeping may not be for everybody, and that it also brings its own challenges. Such disadvantages listed from Lewis (2017) article includes the following.
Financial commitment for the pet – The pet iself may cost you a pretty penny, and giving them the best care possible such as potential medical expenses can be quite costly.
Time commitment – Dogs especially require engagement from the owner, and there are pets that require regular maintenance such as fish, in order to be happy and healthy.
Pet planning, a lot of changes can happen, and such changes must be accounted for.
Social Consequence – pets can cause disturbance to other people, such as dogs constantly barking or runaway pets causing damage to your neighbors home.
Saying goodbye to your pet – Humans tend to live longer than their pets, and it can be quite a difficult experience for the owner to lose a pet they have a great attachment to.
Speaking about the loss of a pet, a study found that older adults who are attached to their pet tended to be more depressed than people who are not as attached to their pet (Miltiades & Shearer, 2011, as cited in Herzog, 2011).
I would also like to add my own experience with pet-keeping, the reason why I keep my pets would be out of a fascination with animals, I mainly kept fish, and that the reason I take care of them is simply out of their beauty. Especially guppies and betta fish, their colors are quite beautiful, and being able to breed them just gives me a sense of accomplishment.
As for benefits, I would say the benefits I get from keeping and breeding fish are a sense of peace and fascination whenever I look at them from the pond and the aquarium. I also got more social interactions due to breeding fish as I met a lot of fellow fish breeders along the way. Having multiple pets has given me a sense of routine thus giving my life some purpose to move and work. Also, It also gave me some physical exercise. Unlike walking a dog, I regularly clean my fish tanks on the weekends and I have to siphon out the dirty water and put it in a bucket, the cycle of siphoning and refilling the tanks has given both my arms and legs quite an exercise. Another is the enjoyment I get from creating and upgrading my fish tanks, it becomes an exercise of my creativity and I guess is another reason I like fish keeping.
But it also has its own challenges, similar to the disadvantages listed previously. I have to buy all the stuff I need to keep my fish happy and healthy, and it’s quite costly. I also have to manage my time for both purchasing the supplies and my personal life, and regularly move my fish tanks around, due to our house constantly being renovated. But overall, I really do enjoy my experience of taking care of fish, even with the challenges it creates.
With all that said, We hope that this article gives new insight into how psychology can be involved in pet-keeping. Although pets can be beneficial, we suggest it is up to your own judgement whether you are ready or not to take care of a pet. Pets truly are a big responsibility, and we hope that keeping a pet is mutually beneficial for both owner and pet.
Well I better go back and feed the fishes, read ya next time.
Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Pet. In Merriam-Webster.com dictionary. from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/pet
Herzog, H. (2014). Biology, Culture, and the Origins of Pet-Keeping. Animal Behavior and Cognition. 2014. 296-308. 10. 12966/abc.08.06.2014.
Cherry, K. (2020, November 18). Psychologists Explain Why We Risk Our Own Well-Being to Help Others. Verywell Mind. https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-altruism-2794828
Serpell, J. & Paul, E.S.. (2012). Pets in the Family: An Evolutionary Perspective. The Oxford Handbook of Evolutionary Family Psychology. 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780195396690.013.0017.
University of York. (2020, September 26). Pets linked to maintaining better mental health and reducing loneliness during lockdown, new research shows. ScienceDaily. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/09/200926145210.htm
Herzog, Harold. (2011). The Impact of Pets on Human Health and Psychological Well-Being: Fact, Fiction, or Hypothesis?. Current Directions in Psychological Science – CURR DIRECTIONS PSYCHOL SCI. 20. 236-239. 10.1177/0963721411415220.
Lewis, B. (2017, September 26). About the Disadvantages of Having Pets. Pets on Mom.Com. https://animals.mom.com/about-the-disadvantages-of-having-pets-12544754.html
Casciotti, D. & Zuckerman, D. (n.d.). The Benefits of Pets for Human Health. National Center for Health Research.https://www.center4research.org/benefits-pets-human-health/