Most of us know the reasons cats and dogs were domesticated and later bred: for food, pest control, hunting, protection, survival, herding, etc., and certainly many pets still provide these practical benefits. However, many—if not most—pets in America don’t. Most pets are simply companion animals who take up space on the couch and sit around looking cute. Yet, we love them. We ooh and aah when we walk through the door to see them there waiting for us. We resort to blubbering baby talk as we confess our love to them. We spend thousands on vet bills, even if we can’t afford it. Why?
So how do humans benefit from our furry friends in today’s age?
What many of us may not know is that our relationship with animals may have caused us to evolve as a species. Research by paleoanthropologist Pat Shipman of Penn State University reveals that domestic animals served as “living tools” to spur human evolution. Domesticating animals allowed humans to focus on other things, such as language. In The Atlantic, Jennifer Garber notes that dogs, in particular, might have been the tool that allowed early humans to flourish. In her article, she credits Shipman for showing that humans and dogs participated in “a virtuous circle of cooperation—one in which humans and their canine friends got stronger, together, over time.
This,” says Garber, “is another way of saying that, to the extent dogs were an evolutionary technology, they may have been a technology that changed us for the better. The old truism—we shape our tools, and afterward our tools shape us—may be as old, and as true, as humanity itself.”
One can only surmise that our pets are still helping us to grow as a species. Studies show that petting an animal reduces blood pressure. Therapeutic dogs help those with autism learn to interact socially. Our cute little pets quell our anxiety and lower our pulse. Kids raised with pets are less likely to develop asthma.
Pets may even be instrumental in the survival of cancer patients. “None of us can speak about our pets without smiling,” says Dr. Creagan, an oncologist at Mayo Clinic. “We now know that when we look into the eyes of that cat, when we stroke that dog, when you hold that animal, there is a surge of hormones deep within the center of the brain. And these hormones provoke a tremendous feeling of peace, of tranquility, of serenity.”
Perhaps no one knows this better than pet owners in the United States. Depending on the source, somewhere between 30-60% of American households have at least one dog or cat.
Pet ownership in the U.S. has tripled since the 1970s. The U.S. currently leads the world with our love of pets, but that is changing. Other nations are catching on. In India, Philippines, Venezuela, Russia, and Argentina, the pet population is surging.
In a few more millennia, anthropologists may have an answer as to why we’d rather wake up with a backache than kick the sideways sleeping dog off the bed. However, at this point in our evolution as humans, there’s just really not a clear answer to why we love our pets so much. But let’s keep on doing it! It sure feels good!
“When you hold an animal, there is a surge of hormones deep within the center of the brain. And these hormones provoke a tremendous feeling of peace, of tranquility, of serenity.”