There’s no question that Americans love their furry friends.
Recent research says that there are 94.2 million cats and 89.7 million dogs in the United States. Pets with gills, scales or feathers are also popular.
Why do people build such strong relationships with animals? That’s a question some sociologists are trying to answer.
Sociologist Nickie Charles wrote in 2014 that pets are overlooked when researching groups and families. And yet, the relationship between humans and their pets are part of everyday life, according to the abstract.
Charles found in her study that 88% of pet owners consider their animals to be part of the family, according to an article in Pacific Standard magazine.
But not everyone thinks of pets that way. Cultural factors may be at play, according to a New York Times article. While doing research on pet ownership for a PhD. in sociology at the University of Chicago, Elizabeth Terrien found diverse descriptions for pets:
- People living in affluent areas – “child,” “companion,” “little friend”
- Neighborhoods with immigrant communities – “protector” and “toy for the children”
Which Came First: Dogs or Cats?
Sociologists and other researchers are trying to learn at which point wild animals became domesticated.
- Domestication of dogs may have begun more 10,000 years ago. The first dogs were essentially “tame wolves” that would approach humans, Slate points out. Over time, people started breeding dogs to hunt, herd, guard, carry things – and “to be more adorable.”
- Cats held a special place in ancient Egyptian society. National Geographic says wealthy families dressed their cats in jewelry and had them mummified when they died. Bastet, the Egyptian goddess of protection, was associated with cats.
Pets as Social Connectors
People embrace pets because they provide companionship, affection, friendship and unconditional love. They also can encourage strong bonds among people.
Alternative medicine proponent Andrew Weil explains the social benefits of pet ownership on his blog. Pet owners are less likely to feel lonely, may be more compatible with other humans and have more opportunities to interact with others.
Pets can serve as a “social lubricant” in that they make it easy for people to get to know each other. A study in PLOS One found that pet owners were likely to get to know their neighbors. Their pets helped break the ice.
Sociologists and other scientists have yet to determine conclusively why humans and pets make good companions. In an interview with the Washington Post, researcher Clive Wynne suggests that future experiments might involve brain scans of humans while they interact with dogs and cats.
The social connections pets inspire may be good for people’s health, according to the Harvard Health Blog. A study found that people with strong social connections tend to live longer that those who don’t. The study also suggested that owning a pet encourages people to socialize.
Additional health benefits from pets:
- Lower blood pressure and heart problems – Dog owners need to walk their pets, which is a source of daily exercise.
- Lower stress – Spending time with a pet reduces levels of a hormone associated with stress, according to WebMD.