Value

I like when current events in the media combine to illustrate animal welfare in our society. This week’s blog post was impossible to resist.

Recently there was a bit of hubbub over a group of scientists discovering what they described as … a freaking puppy sized spider (emphasis mine, extra Raid cans also mine).

The scientists released a blog and the media picked it up and ran with it (because it was a freaking puppy sized spider. It wasn’t even chihuahua sized, this is a decent sized puppy we’re talking about. No I’m not linking to a picture. Google that yourself. Go on. Type ‘puppy sized spider’ in there. I dare you).

But here comes the twist in the tale (the puppy sized spider tail . . . wait, that doesn’t really work, does it?). Our intrepid scientist started to receive death threats and abused because he collected a specimen. And ‘collected’ in this sense means in the more Victorian sense. There is one less puppy sized spider in the world.

Piotr, for that is our scientist’s name, has written an excellent blog post describing the necessity of biological sampling, and the danger of assuming that any of us lead a guilt free life. I strongly encourage you to read it, but I’ll include this quote:

We kill thousands of organisms without realizing that we do it. Look into the light fixtures of your house or the grill of your car, they are full of dead insects and spiders. 

It is all but impossible to live a life that does not harm animals in some description, and for the most part (legally, and culturally) we often excuse ourselves by protect vertebrates. I’m really fascinated by the outrage that has come up around a spider.

This week, TV presenter Chris Packham penned an open letter to the presenters Ant and Dec asking them to put a stop to the ‘animal abuse’ in their show ‘I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here’. The show typically features ‘celebrities’ eating live bugs on screen as a challenge, or in one memorable case, a contestant caught, killed and ate a rat. Packham says:

“I can guarantee that some animals are harmed during production, because they are fragile or easily stressed. Or simply killed, as they are in your bushtucker trials.”

Are we heading toward a new age of invertebrate animal protection?

 

I have a visceral reaction to that spider. It makes me feel unwell. Yes, I am an arachnophobe (I’m not fond of any insect really), even the cute ones like the Peacock Spider are only tolerable when they are an image on a screen. When I see a spider the space between my shoulderblades begins to twitch and my heart begins to pump. Fear this, my body tells me, and even when I’m trying to be cool in front of other scientists, I cannot bring myself to approach. I have never held a tarantula, even though I’ve had copious opportunities to do so, because I simply would not be able to control my muscles long enough to do so.

It’s Okay To Be Smart did an interesting vid on this recently, but that’s not the point of this post. The point of this post is to discuss whether we, as a society, think it’s acceptable to harm invertebrates.

I have beliefs about the way you should treat animals. This set of beliefs arises from my experiences, my knowledge, my culture and my society. This is my ethical viewpoint. You can explore the most common ethical viewpoints and how you stack up on the excellent Animal Ethics Dilemma website.

My ethical viewpoint has changed over the years, as has yours no doubt. Our ethics can even be formed by different thought processes. Some people will describe their ethics based on how things make them feel. As a utilitarian, I try to remove my feelings from the process of making an ethical judgement (interestingly, a small study of 38 students showed that the way they reacted to images of humans experiencing injustice and unfairness influenced the way their higher-order ‘computational nodes’ of the brain – in essence it was the logical parts of the brain that react in cases of injustice, Yoder & Decety (2014). It would be fascinating to repeat this with other age groups, and with animal scenarios too. The point being that your desire for social justice does not necessarily have to be based on the emotional centres of your brain). Regardless of how your ethical viewpoint was formed, you believe it to be right. When people act against their ethical values, they can be deeply distressed.

Now some people believe you should harm no animal at all. They believe that animals have an absolute value and that we have no right to use them. To live in such a way that upholds the absolute value of all animals is very difficult. The kingdom ‘Animalia’ (the simplest way to define animals, really) encompasses a huge range of beasts: do the sponge and the jellyfish have the same absolute value as the elephant and the tiger? Every time you swat a fly, uproot a worm, or even tell a dog not to eat the cat’s food you could be violating that absolute value.

This is a difficult (though not impossible, see Jainism) way to live. But most people begin to take a more centrist position by believing that animals have an intrinsic value. We must justify their use in some way. Some justifications are easier than others. I always find the fish eating vegetarian to be a fascinating example of this. Many species of fish (which is an arbitrary group of animals anyway) have very sophisticated nervous systems and are capable of pain and suffering. Killing them humanely is difficult and catching them humanely even more so. But for many people, their ethical viewpoint can accept the death of a fish, but abhors the death of a chicken. This often comes from a relational viewpoint, where animals are prized for the way we interact with them. Most people have fewer interactions with a fish than they do a chicken or a cow, and the life of a fish is more unimaginable.

And then on the other side, some people believe that animals have an extrinsic value, that we may use them as we wish.This is more common than you might think. The cat owner who takes his cat to the vets to be euthanased because he no longer wants it is assigning its life extrinsic value. When the owner no longer takes value from the animal, the life becomes disposable.

This scale of values exists in conjunction with the various ethical viewpoints we have. I myself am a utilitarian who believes animals have an intrinsic vale. I use animals. I am also rather broad in my description of animals. For example, I’ll eat any animal so long as I can be satisfied of two questions: “Did the animal have a good quality of life/human death?” and “Will eating this animal negatively impact my health or welfare?” Now that doesn’t mean I question every animal product that passes my lips, I am more than sure I have eaten poor welfare meat (as we discussed in our kosher post), but this ethical standpoint and my view of animals’ values guides my actions.

 

However there is an element of the ‘relational’ ethical viewpoint for me. I don’t have good relationships with invertebrates, and I don’t have the same emotional reaction to their injury that I do to a vertebrate’s injury. With that being said, we describe invertebrate harm as ‘cruel’ and ‘worrying’ in several cultural contexts. Imagine the cat playing with the spider, batting it from paw to paw, tearing it limb from limb. We frequently stop our cats from doing this, in part because we are disgusted, but in part because we recognise that must be an unpleasant experience for the spider. Cats are cruel and toy with their prey (probably because they don’t recognise their prey as sentient, but with cats you never know . . .)

And then there is the case of the little boy burning ants. It’s a short hand we use for unthinking cruelty in our media, or to indicate that a character will go on to become cruel. And yet invertebrate experimentation like this is a common experience for many of growing up.

 

What is the difference, ethically speaking, in killing a spider for entertainment (I’m a Celebrity) and killing a spider for science (the puppy sized specimen). In  both cases, a spider dies, surely the ethical line is one drawn in the sand?

Well, no, I don’t think so. It’s often tempting to write off ethics as nebulous and personal, but there are many, many reasons to support both the collection of the puppy sized spider and the banning of invertebrate eating on I’m a Celebrity…

  • The ‘greater good’ of media vs science. How much does the entertainment of seeing people eat spiders benefit society?  Not a huge amount, the trials could be replaced by something equally disgusting and memorable (smelly tofu springs to mind, indeed what one of the previous winners of I’m a Celebrity ate as a vegetarian). Indeed you could argue that the destruction of animals for entertainment is an overall negative for our society, as Packham outlines.
  • By contrast, the ‘greater good’ we get from understanding the physiology of the Goliath spider is a scientific contribution to  our understanding of the world. I prize knowledge over entertainment.
  • Which brings me on to volume – the number of spiders which die for this scientific need is less than the number which die or are fatally injured for this case of entertainment.
  • And this brings me to the method – the method of killing on I’m a Celebrity is one which we might reasonably consider to be a high-stress environment, even for what we know of spider perception. Whereas we  might expect the passionate scientist to have a calmer, more human approach.

At the end of the day, if you feel animals have an extrinsic value, neither of these spider deaths will upset you. If you feel they have absolute value, both these deaths will upset you.

But most of us lie in the middle zone, where intrinsic value must meet the benefit our society gets from either entertainment or knowledge. And it is here that the great ethical debates come in.

Regardless, threatening the scientist is not going to help anyone.

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In Defence of Cats

During Badger Fortnight an amazing blog post by climber Craig Armstrong came to my attention – detailing the climbing exploits of him and his cat Millie.

I particularly love the comments that express amazement or defend the cats’ loyalty.

As you might have guessed by reading this blog, I’m a big fan of animals, but if you forced me to choose, I’d describe myself as a cat person.

Legend (or family lore at the least) tells that when I was a baby, our two cats were fascinated by the new arrival. They would sit on either side of the changing mat, and sneak into the cot whenever they could manage it. My mum clearly wasn’t a subscriber to the old myth that cats suffocate babies. (Unless she was and she was hoping they might . . . she’ll undoubtedly comment on this so check below for her thoughts).

John Bradshaw’s ‘Cat Sense’, one of my favourite popular science books, talks about how cats have always polarised people. More recently, I’ve been arguing with our MOOC cameraman about how cats are awesome (he disagrees – let us know in the MOOC forums if you note a distinct dog bias in our glamour shots). Lastly, even a climbing cat couldn’t convince my sister, climber extrordinaire, that cats are just as awesome as dogs, if not more so.

Buckle your seatbelt, kitten, we’re having a Caturday.

When I first started composing this post it devolved into a long series of memories about this little lady, Posie. Adopted from an SSPCA shelter when I was five she’s the kind of cat who might have stepped out of a Homeward Bound film (except her homeward journey took her four years to travel six miles, but never mind). She would walk with us to the shops, and was one of the most affectionate little animals I’ve ever met. Hers is a story I’ll save for a Fluffy Friday.

Posie snoring, possibly drooling on my knee.
Posie snoring, possibly drooling on my knee.

Instead let’s talk about the cat-human bond. I talk about dogs a lot and in fact they’re one of my favourite examples to use when I’m explaining why humans and animals have long histories. Despite this, dogs are pretty understudied in animal welfare and cats receive even less attention. So this post will be a very potted summary of what we know of the human-cat bond.

A 9,500 year old grave in Cyprus contains a man buried with a cat (Vigne et al, 2004), and there’s archaeological evidence in China dating around 5,300 years ago of cats living with humans, eating leftovers and eating the rodents around our grain (Hu et al 2014). Much like dogs, but considerably later, cats started exploiting humans by making use of our environment. Particularly when we started farming and lots of little rodents started preying on our grains.

Like dogs, cats true wild ancestor no longer exists. Instead, the cats which could tolerate humans became our domesticated cats, those who couldn’t stayed far from humans, and became something else. But cats are a few thousand years behind dogs in this domesticated tree. While dogs were a product of the hunter gather, cats are a product of the farmer.

One of the little titbits in John Bradshaw’s book absolutely fascinated me. A tenth century Welsh statue says

“The price of a cat is fourpence. Her qualities are to see, to hear, to kill mice, to have her claws whole, and to nurse and not devour her kittens. If she be deficient in any one of these qualities, one third of her price must be returned”

Good mothers, good mousers. This cat would fetch the same price as an untrained house-dog a sheep or a goat. Kittens were a penny, the same as a piglet or a lamb, and a young cat was two pence. And female cats were much more highly prized than toms (a strange quirk that I still buy into, I’ve always liked female cats more, for no real reason).

The good mother clause is interesting because cats are not, by nature, all good mothers. My old cat, Posie, had two litters of kittens. Her first litter she decided to have on my bed, in full view of the world, on a bedspread with a cat and kittens on it. I don’t think I was older than seven, and I remember being very touched that she chose to have her little little of black fluffballs in my bedroom. Looking back on it now, I still can’t decide if this was a demonstration of absolute trust and security, or simply a demonstration of her not quite having the right instincts during her pregnancy.

While she would feed them all, she was not particularly defensive of them. When they started to crawl, my mum and I experimented by taking one from her nest and taking it to the far side of the kitchen. Posie eventually came to get it after we called on her, evidently not greatly perturbed by the kitten’s plaintive mews.

Her second litter was born while we were temporarily living in a flat. We had only been in the flat for a few months and she seemed to need somewhere quieter to have her kittens. I opened my wardrobe not long before we were due to move back home and promptly informed my mother Posie had had kittens again, which was no small consternation considering it was a pet-free flat.

Being small and petite, Posie would drag her large fluffy kittens along the floor rather than pick them up. The only thing that ever seemed to arouse her mothering instincts was when they would get stuck under the bathroom sink and cry. Even years after she was spayed, the sounds of a crying kitten on the television would have her searching under the bathroom sink.

Related cats will happily share litters, and in a good environment, they’ll stay with their mothers for a long time. Girls are particularly social, staying with sisters for a long time. If this is reminding you of any other big cat structure there’s a reason – house cats and lions are the only felines which will typically naturally live in groups. Kittens which are socialised very early with humans, between 2 and 9 weeks, appear to give their owners more social support (Casey & Bradshaw, 2008).

So what is it about cats that makes them decide to pride-up with humans, in the same way dogs pack-up with us? I firmly believe that dog people are threatened by the cat’s ability to control. We understand that dogs get their way by being cute and adorable, but cats seem to be able to train us.

McComb et al (2009) did one of my favourite studies because it confirmed something I had long recognised in Posie’s relationship with me. She had a specific purr which incorporated a quiet, high pitched chirrup, a rolling r and a little uplift at the end. We used to call it ‘purring with excitement’ and it was given in anticipation of food, when she thought food might be included in Tesco shopping bags, when she was about to be let out of the door and when she was desperate for a cuddle (the ‘prrroing’ noise would escape as she leapt up onto the sofa or bed, soon giving way to a deep, rhythmic purring as she reached her goal).

McComb et al investigated how these solicitation purrs sounded to cat owners and non-cat owners. All identified these solicitation purrs as being more urgent and less pleasant than the same cat’s relaxed purr. But cat-owners were significantly better dentifying the same cat’s solicitation purr and relaxed purr than non-owners, suggesting that owners learn this. McComb et all went on to investigate the auditory properties of these solicitation purrs and the peak of the cry lies at around 300-600Hz, the same as a human baby’s hungry wail.

Yep, cats vocalise at the same pitch as our babies, a sound that we are incapable of habituating to, thanks to that pesky evolution.

Cats play their affection for us coolly. While we can use infant human attachment tests to measure a dog’s obsession with its owner, cats which are isolated from their owner do not respond to their owner’s voice with body language or vocalisation, but by a tiny ear swivel in the direction of their owner’s voice (Saito & Shinozuka, 2013). I haven’t found any evidence of people using separation tests in cats (let me know if you know of a study) but there is evidence of cats showing separation related behaviours when left alone, such as excessive grooming, vocalisation and defecation (Schwartz, 2002).

Dogs share a lot of traits with us, trained in ways we understand instinctively, motivated by affection and praise like we are, but cats have a different kind of intelligence, less comparable to ours.

Teach a dog and a cat to pull a string for a food reward. They both quickly take to pulling the string. Give them two strings and show them that food exists at the end of one string. Dogs are reasonably able to deduce that they want to pull the string attached to the food. Cats, not so much. Pull string, get food. Cats don’t understand they need to link the food to the string, whereas dogs seem to be able to grasp this at a rudimentary level. Finally, if you cross the strings, cats are still playing their little string games and the dog geniuses are entirely confused. Causal understanding is not a cat’s strong point (Whitt et al, 2009).  Dogs and babies can do object permanance tests, cats struggle (and some cats don’t even bother).

So, emotionally manipulative, intelligence alien to our own, and only barely able to tolerate other cats and humans if given the right amount of socialisation as kittens. Why do we love them?

What I love about a cat is its ability to be selective in its affection. I like to feel important in a pet’s life. My mum’s new cat, adopted from a friend who could no longer look after her, greets me with raised tail and chirrups when I walk up the road with an overnight bag. She sniffs my face and then promptly investigates all the bags and treasures I have brought. While I’ve known her for four years now, her affection for me has only recently developed. Earning the trust of a cat I see infrequently feels more rewarding for me than the instant love of a dog I’ve just met.

In my opinion its this small personality difference that distinguishes dog and cat people. Dog people are more extraverted, socialising easily and freely. Introverts value that socialness no less, but like it a different, more concentrated source.

Bradshaw finishes his book with a surprising statement that doesn’t come naturally from most animal welfare scientisits. He suggests that we start breeding for a truly domesticated cat, teaching people how to train their cats, and stop neutering the excellent housecats we have indiscriminately. He points to his 1999 paper which found that an area with a high population of neutered cats was producing moggie kittens that didn’t have particularly sociable genes.

Bradshaw argues that if we want the domestic cat to survive as a pet, we must use our knowledge of animal welfare to produce an animal more suited for its new environment. He suggests that we can avoid making the mistakes we made with dogs and take a scientific approach to producing the animal we want, affectionate, relaxed, and with little hunting motivation.

 

I find that an interesting idea, and it has certainly affected my thinking about any future cats I will own.

Elephants Who Marry Mice

Don’t you just hate when you’re forced to face up to the fact you’re not as virtuous as you think you are?

One of the courses I’m currently writing for the International Fund for Animal Welfare came back to me with some corrections. My reviewer had changed the following sentence, the change in capitals.

“Dogs WHO showed pessimistic behaviours were more depressed.”

And try as I might, my gaze kept tripping over that word. Dogs Who, Dogs Who, Dogs Who.

Let us momentarily leap backwards in time to our English classes. My education contained very little formal grammar training, which may be obvious to the casual reader, but even I know that personal pronouns (e.g. who, he, she, they) are reserved for people. Animal are referred to as objects (e.g. which, it, that).

“The dog which barked” is preferable to “The dog who barked”.

“It is lying in the cat basket” may be preferable to “she is lying in the cat basket”.

This can lead to the English language treating animals very strangely. For example, say you visit a new acquaintance. You know this acquaintance has two cats, Gin and Tonic (this friend might be a bit odd), but you see one cat on the windowsill. You want to know, is that cat Gin or is that cat Tonic? You may ask “What cat is that?” or “Which cat is that?” seeing as you know it is one of two. It would be wrong to say “Who is that?”

Is it problematic to refer to animals as objects? Well first we have to ask if grammar affects the way we think. (And before we go any further I want to tell you that journals on grammar and semantics are almost as impenetrable as journals on molecular genetics)

Boroditsky (2009) investigated the differences in how speakers of English and Mandarin thought about time. In English we speak of time as a horizontal construct (you look ahead to the good times and back on the bad times) whereas in Mandarin time is spoken of in a vertical manner (the paper gives the translated example “what is the year before the year of the tiger?”).

The experiment itself is a bit odd to get your head around, but first they primed English and Mandarin speakers with either vertical or horizontal concepts (i.e. the black worm is ahead of the white worm, the black ball is below the white ball) and then given ‘target’ statements about time ‘March is earlier than April’, ‘March is before April’.

English speakers answered these questions faster after hearing a horizontal prime (similar to how they think of time) and Mandarin speakers answered these questions faster after they had heard a vertical prime (similar to how they think of time). Boroditsky concludes that the way we speak frames the way we perceive the world.

But does this happen in animal welfare? Well I’m not the only one who wondered about this. Gilquin & Jacobs (2006) wrote a paper which is whimsically titled ‘Elephants Who Marry Mice’. They reviewed style standards in various publication manuals. For example, the Guardian’s, which you can find here, says:

animals

pronoun “it” unless gender established

 

The Guardian also says:

any more

Please do not say “anymore” any more

 

So I don’t dream of writing a Comment Is Free column anymore.

Unsurprisingly, Gilquin and Jacobs found that it was the familiar animals (horses, dogs, cats, etc.) which scored a ‘who’ more often than the non familiar animals. Furthermore, publications aimed at animal-related interest groups were more likely to use ‘who’, e.g. Dogs Today.

They noted that in general texts or interviews, the personal pronoun was used when the author wanted to garner sympathy for the animal in question. It is “the poor cat who was stuck in a tree” rather than “the cat which was stuck in the tree”.

More interestingly, given some of my other posts on anthropomorphism, 60% of the sentences they found which used the personal pronoun for the animals attributed human-like characteristics to the animals.

Gilquin and Jacobs conclude that ‘who’ is used in English to refer to animals, although inconsistently. They suggest a wider adoption of this grammatical structure might engender more empathy for animals from humans, something which I think reflects what Ganea et al found in their work.

Should animal welfare scientists be calling for the personal pronoun usage?

I really can’t decide. I’m not convinced that it will completely change the way we think about animals. But it’s a nudge you might want to be aware of if you’re talking animal welfare science.

 

And for what it’s worth, I changed the text on the course.

The Black Dog

In the last twelve months one of my little sisters has struggled with depression. I think she’s coping remarkably well with it and I’m really very proud of her. Recently she got some bad news and in one of my weekly ‘putting the world to rights’ calls with my mother, I said that if she looked like this might set her back we should encourage her to get a cat.

Mum laughed and agreed, and then the next day phoned me frantically to exclaim: you should blog about that!

So here is the blog about pets and depression!

I have good reason to suspect a pet would help my sister, as well as other people with certain kinds of depression. And it’s not just because of this Eddie Izzard sketch.

There are two many theories regarding why we keep pets, and I’ve spoken about them before. They boil down to this: either pets take advantage of us, or pets give us some advantage in life. Much of what I’m going to talk about today falls under this second theory, but remember – it could just be a way our little social parasites have evolved to keep us sweet.

Pets Matter to People

One of the most interesting (and sadly unpublished) pieces of research I’ve ever done was investigating how online pet obituaries represent owners feelings about a pet passing away. Pets are very dear to their owners. People often say they love their pet ‘like a child’.

Interestingly, when people have been asked to rate how the loss of a pet makes them feel, they’ll say it’s analogous to losing touch with an adult child (Gage & Holcomb, 1991). Therefore the loss of a pet is a stressful event – just what I want for my blue sister, right? The inevitable loss of an animal.

What I find really interesting about that comparison is that it talks about children, but doesn’t directly compare the loss of a pet to the loss of a child. Part of me wonders if there’s not a little bit of cultural bias in there. You’re not allowed to say that losing a pet is as bad as losing a child (and personally I can’t imagine that it is), but that language seems to put it as close to the worst possible feeling as is socially acceptable.

Pets Are Good For People

If I was to put on a white lab coat and force you to do a mental arithmetic test, you’d get stressed out. This is a pretty common psychological stressor. If I made you do it in front of a friend, you might even get more stressed out, your heart rate would rise. However, if I made you do arithmetic at home, you’d feel calmer.

What’s really interesting about all this is if I made you do arithmetic at home in front of your best friend, and then made you do arithmetic in front of your dog, and lastly all by yourself,  you would be even calmer with your dog than by yourself. (Allen et al, 1991). Animals have this amazing ability to calm us down.

Blood pressure (and heart rate) go up with mental stress. Allen (who seems to have enjoyed making people do mental arithmetic in their home, I can only imagine she creeps up on neighbours with multiple choice tests) tested the presence of a dog against ACE inhibitors, drugs designed to lower blood pressure, and in the presence of mental stress, the dog helped people to cope better than the drug (Allen et al 2001).

This doesn’t mean dogs are natural anti-depressants. Karen Allen (unfortunately, not this one) uses a great phrase to describe how we view dogs: nonevaluative social support.

Which is a scientific way of saying ‘dogs are awesome because they don’t judge me when I’m eating Nutella out of a jar’. As an aside, I’ve heard some people complain that cats are more likely to judge than dogs, but I’ll point out cats have this weird fascination with accompanying you to the toilet, and like to make eye contact with anyone in the vicinity while they themselves are defecating, and so I’ve never felt too judged by any of my cats.

Don’t go to down the road of thinking that pets, or dogs, can ‘cure’ depression. But what they can do is alleviate stressful states (Wilson, 1991).

Pets and the Vulnerable

I have this belief that a child should have a pet. It’s probably one of my strongest child-rearing beliefs (apart from the whole ‘feed them, love them, clothe them’ idea). But I also believe that the elderly should have pets too.

My stepmother recently passed a significant birthday (I hasten to point out she’s not elderly). Her and my dad’s beautiful dog Rosa is entering old age however. At the  significant birthday we talked about retirement and I pointed out that after Rosa passed, they’d have to get a new dog at retirement. I couldn’t imagine them filling their days without a dog, for all there will be a long period of grieving after Rosa’s death.

My dad tells a story about his family. He, his sister and his mother conspire to get their dad a new dog after the old one dies. My Grandpa insists he doesn’t want a dog, can’t stand the thought of another dog, that their old dog was the only one for him. Newly retired, he sits in his living room and sulks.

My dad, my aunt and my grandmother go to a breeder who has some highland terrier puppies. They select a tiny white ball of fluff and take him home. They open the door to the living room and send the puppy through, waiting in the hallway for the reaction.

The puppy’s name was Angus, and he is the first dog I remember. He was my grandpa’s companion through my grandmother’s death, and helped me and grandpa chase flies with the hoover.

My Grandpa and his terrier Angus on the shores of Loch Lomond
My Grandpa and his terrier Angus on the shores of Loch Lomond

This is the essence of non-evaluative social support. When there are bad times, or particular stresses, they somehow help us cope. Elderly people require more social support, this manifests in reports of feeling lonely, of multiple visits to the doctors, etc. However elderly people with pets report visiting the doctor less often (Siegel, 1990, Knight and Edwards, 2008). And given the physiological changes that Allen recorded, I’m happy to assign this difference to the act of owning pets (as opposed to pet owners being less likely to visit the doctor because of some internal difference), but it should be pointed out that there are lifestyle benefits to pet owning.

But one of my absolute favourite papers about the benefits of pets to vulnerable people (yes, I have a favourite), is one by Kaminski et al (2002) [someone hosts a pdf here].

What’s more vulnerable than a hospitalised child? It’s a horrible thought. We have all sorts of therapies to help children adjust to being in hospital, and these include pet therapy. In this simple little study, the authors asked kids to rate their emotions before and after a play therapy session and before and after a pet therapy session. Pet therapy had a bigger effect on their positive interactions than play therapy did. Pets made sick kids feel good, and it wasn’t even their pet.

We Know The Effect, What’s the Reason?

This is the kind of scientific question I love – we see a nice measurable effect, but the why of the question is something intangible. It’s not a ‘real’, ‘quantifiable’ thing, and I think this is why I love animal personality. I love the difficulty of wrestling with non-linear qualities and multidimensional space. No one tell my old maths teacher.

Archer (1997) [a pdf here] wonders ‘why’ people love their pets. I love the part of this paper that talks about how often people show such an attachment to their pets that they do something ‘odd’, such as make the pet the best man at a wedding, fight for legal custody, etc. He talks about the commonly held idea that people own pets to make up for a deficiency in their human relations. If you can’t make real friends you go out and become a cat lady. (Here I’ll point out I’m currently considering getting a cat of my own). Ultimately Archer dismisses this, in part because in Western society we are very influenced by a particular line of thought which gives humans “ dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth” (Genesis 1:26), and in part because many studies show that pet-owning correlates with a lot of personality traits we consider desirable in our society.

In the end Archer is a proponent of the social parasite theory and says these advantages are not enough to provide an advantage to human survival. I’m not sure I agree, but that’s a topic of another post. The point is that whatever the mechanism, people feel a very strong attachment, undeniably love, to an entity which does not judge or present them with the kind of social contract that we engage in with other humans.

Back to the Sister . . .

I think my sister is doing fine. I hope she continues to do well. Do I think that cat would ‘fix’ her? No, not at all. But I do appreciate the phrase ‘unconditional love’. This next statement I have no reference for, but I think you’ll see it for what it is . . .

In films, tv shows and stories, there’s often a moment where somebody with little else to value in their life has their precious pet taken from them. We’ve named a trope for this effect: ‘kick the dog’. Who didn’t cry the first time they watched Kes? We know this feeling of love for our pets so well that when someone hurts a pet, we know it is immediate short-hand for ‘this person is so evil they have removed the last remnant of support from a person’s life’.

I don’t recommend dogs to combat the black dog in general, but I do think there’s something to be said to coming home to a pair of brown eyes.

 

Edited to add:

I thought I’d link to some depression resources for anyone in need of support. And I want to point out I sought my little sister’s permission to share her story. If you are feeling depressed, I really hope you find the support you need. xxx

NHS Depression Support Groups

Samaritans

AACAP Depression Resource

Hyperbole and a Half – Not a resource but a truly insightful look into what it feels like to be depressed.