“All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”
– George Orwell
Over many thousands of years, we have let more and more animals into our homes to live with us. And as we do so, the line between pet and humans continues to blur with dogs being taken to yoga, given shoes and coats and doggy day care and so on.
In the UK, in 2017:
- 44% of all households have pets (12 million households with 54 million pets in total)
- 24% of these are dogs
- 17% are cats
- 8% are indoor fish
- 5% are outdoor fish
Pets provide us with comfort, they fulfil our need to be needed, we can interpret their behaviour as love and affection and who doesn’t want someone/thing that loves them unconditionally and doesn’t hold a grudge.
Animals comfort us, show us loyalty and joy and model forgiveness for us. They are somewhat like children, somewhat like friends and in some cases somewhat like colleagues. They meet our innate need for positive interactions. One study even found that people with pets spend more time laughing than non pet owners… a sad fact for those of us with allergies…
We use pets to make ourselves feel better; in hospitals, care homes schools and therapy situations. We use them to help children who are struggling to learn to read. By reading to a gentle dog, they get the stress relief benefits of the pet whilst also having a non judgemental audience to practice and build confidence with. We use pets in disaster relief to comfort victims.
Studies show that petting, playing and gazing at a pet releases oxytocin which helps us feel loved and nurtured and is good for our mental health. Whilst on mental health, some people have said that having something which relies on you for its basic needs can be really helpful in motivating them to do things that their depression wouldn’t allow otherwise.
[Pet animals sometimes] “bear more than their natural burden of human love”
– George Bernard Shaw
The relationship between pet and owner forms a powerful dyad, especially in the case of dogs where strangers may experience you as a couple. You are inextricably linked with your pet when it comes to your identity. Animals can change how a human is viewed, for example a few studies have shown that when disabled people are out with helper dogs, they receive very different attention to when they are out on their own.
Pets are a way of showing that you are kind, caring and sociable and a study showed that a man with a dog in a park was more successful at getting dates or phone numbers from women than he was without the dog. The pet also gives strangers a pivot around which to interact. You can comment on what a lovely dog the stranger has or how good they are and break the ice and dog owners have been shown to spend more time with strangers in parks than those without.
Caring for pets however, does not automatically make you a nice person… The Nazi Party was particularly concerned about the welfare of animals. When they came into power in 1933, they introduced a range of animal protection laws. Mistreating your pets could see you in jail for two years. The production of foie gras, docking ears and tails without anaesthesia and mistreating animals used in films were all banned. Human slaughter was required for food animals and the treatment of animals was added to the school curriculum. In 1934, they hosted an international conference on animal protection. They were without a doubt treating and valuing their pets above Jews, practising humane killing for the animals and inhumane methods for humans. I haven’t read it but Animals in the Third Reich: Pets, Scapegoats, and the Holocaust by Boria Sax looks an interesting read on the subject.
The nature of pet ownership has changed considerably over the years… to be able to keep a pet, you need to know that food supplies are reliable and you need to have enough time for it, so this, for much of history, meant pets were for the higher classes. The church denounced pet keeping in the middle ages, deeming it to be heresy as it blurred the line between humans and animals. However, the ecclesiastical elite and nobility could defy this. Lower classes were prohibited from owning certain types of dog, namely hunting dogs, presumably to protect the sport of hunting…
In the last 150 years, we have bred dogs for certain characteristics and the same continues today for a wider range of species. In order to meet our own needs and desires, we are harming our allegedly beloved pets, causing breathing difficulties, joint problems, pain and much more. I suspect we don’t even know the half of the damage we are doing to them through over breeding. Pets are also subject to unnecessary cosmetic procedures such as tail docking, ear cropping and declawing. They are shaped, like a commodity, to be most convenient to humans.
The relationship between pet and caretaker and their identities is an interesting one and is explored in Actions Speak Louder Than Words although I may return to the topic myself at some stage. The paper looks at things like naming of our pets, our presumptions about what their species or breed means in terms of their identity and how the caretaker shapes the pet’s identity.
Whilst dogs might on the whole be more popular, I’m going to kick off with a look at my favourite pet, the cat.