Why We Love Our Cats and Dogs
Whether it’s an occasional shared sense of playfulness or our surging oxytocin when we gaze at each other, house pets and humans share a unique cross-species bond.
By Psychology Today Contributors published May 4, 2021 - last reviewed on May 4, 2021
We shower Rosco, Max, and Tigger with toys and kisses. In fact, for some people, pets are Numero Uno. When two men nabbed a pair of Lady Gaga’s prized pooches earlier this year, she posted a $500,000 reward for their return. Clearly, many people are gaga over man’s and woman’s best friend. And there is good reason to be pro-pet. Studies show that kids who have pets enjoy higher self-esteem, cognitive development, and social skills. Studies also show that pet owners are healthier and happier. While we don’t know if people are healthier and happier because they have pets, we do know that there is a positive association between humans and their furry companions.
How Much Money Is Your Pet Worth?
Why it’s difficult for people to name a price for their animal.
By Hal Herzog, Ph.D.
You have likely read about Lady Gaga’s French bulldogs. Earlier this year, two of her pets were snatched from her dog-walker, who as of this writing is recovering from a gunshot to his chest. The pop star immediately offered $500,000 for the return of her dogs—no questions asked. Two days later, a woman handed Koji and Gustav to the cops. The police do not believe she was involved in the crime, and it’s currently unknown whether she received the reward money.
This unfortunate event and the size of the reward highlight the monetary value we place on our dogs and cats.
Here’s the problem: While we increasingly think of pets as people, from a legal perspective the dogs and cats in our lives are considered property. As with a used car, it is perfectly legal to buy, sell, or give away a companion animal. But there is a difference between determining the value of a used car and a personal pet. You can check the worth of your car in the Kelly Blue Book, but this is not true for the value of an animal, one that may be in your life for years.
What determines the dollar value of a pet? One factor, of course, is the wealth of its owner. Lady Gaga puts the value of each of her pups at $250,000. But unlike pop stars, most pet lovers are not fabulously wealthy. However, there are several methods that examine the monetary value of our dogs and cats.
One is from behavioral economics: asking people how much they would fork over to save their pet. This is the “willingness to pay” concept. Willingness to pay has been used to assess how people rate the importance of environmental issues—for example, saving 20,000 seabirds from an oil spill.
Colleen Kirk at the New York Institute of Technology has researched the relative value of a pet dog compared with a pet cat. Her 99 participants were university employees who owned cats, dogs, or both. First, they were asked to think about one of their pets. Then they had to imagine that their pet had contracted a serious illness and that curing the pet would require surgery; without intervention, the pet would die. The participants were then asked: What is the most you would be willing to pay for your pet’s life-saving surgery? The subjects said they would pay a median of $3,000 to save the life of their dog and $1,800 to save their cat. Research from the University of Oklahoma also found similar results by using a method economists developed to estimate the value of a human life.
The legal system offers another window into the monetary value of pets. In 2014, police officer Rodney Price was investigating a burglary in Glen Burnie, Maryland, when he was barked at by Vern, a Chesapeake Bay retriever owned by Michael Reeves. Feeling threatened by the large dog, Price pulled out his gun and shot him. Officer Price claimed the dog was going to attack him, and he was exonerated by an internal police investigation.
The Reeves family disputed the account, saying that Vern was not aggressive and did not endanger the officer. He was just barking at a stranger in his yard. They filed a wrongful death lawsuit, and the jury awarded Reeves $1.26 million in damages for Vern’s death—$500,000 in monetary damages and $760,000 damages due to emotional distress to Reeves.
Other legal cases have also put premiums on the lives of pets. A Connecticut jury awarded $202,000 to a man and his daughter whose 115-pound mild-mannered St. Bernard was shot by Hartford police during an illegal search. A Franklin County, Washington, jury awarded $100,000 to Jim Anderson, whose springer spaniel, Chucky, was shot and killed by a neighbor.
How do we quantify the unquantifiable? I remember a public opinion poll that asked pet owners if they would sell their pet for a million dollars. Fifty-six percent of them said no.
I have asked myself this question. When my cat, Tilly, jumps in my lap in the evening, I love to rub behind her ears while we watch TV. However, during my lectures, I sometimes show a slide of Tilly with a “For Sale” sign. I tell the audience that she is a sweetheart, but for a million bucks, I would consider letting her go to the right owner. No one has come forward, but I am pretty sure I would not go through with the deal.
Hal Herzog, Ph.D., is a professor emeritus of psychology at Western Carolina University and the author of Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat.
How Pets Can Boost Your Health
By Sheri Hall
We love our furry companions for good reason.
If you don’t have a pet, you may wonder how much they require in food,
training, and poop-scooping, not to mention visits to the vet. But most pet owners understand that companion animals do provide benefits to their owners.
Based on surveys completed before the global pandemic, the American Pet Products Association estimated that about 85 million U.S. households owned a pet in 2019. In separate surveys conducted since the start of the pandemic, the association estimates that an additional 11 million U.S. households adopted new pets in the past year.
A systematic review from the University of Liverpool identified 17 studies that looked at the effects of pet ownership on people experiencing mental health problems. They found companion animals do improve mental well-being. Studies showed pets were especially helpful to military veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and to people with depression.
What is it about having a pet? The researchers found pet owners benefited from companionship and “unconditional love” from pets. Pets were especially helpful for people living alone. In addition, people with pets made social connections with strangers out in public and were more likely to have positive interactions with family and friends.
But there is a caveat.
Researchers have pointed out that other aspects of pet owners’ lives may exaggerate these health and well-being benefits. They found many of the benefits disappeared when they factored in homeownership, parental health, wealth, and race. It may well be that the mental health benefits of pet ownership in families are actually due to differences in socioeconomic class.
In addition, the authors did find negative aspects of owning a pet, including difficulty finding rental housing. And pet owners experience worry and guilt if they believe their pets misbehave. But overall, researchers agree that pets improve the well-being of people with mental health problems.
A review article from the University of Queensland included 52 studies examining the health benefits of pet ownership for older adults. The authors found that older adults who owned pets experienced a higher quality of life and were less likely to have symptoms of depression and anxiety. Additionally, participants with dementia who owned pets exhibited fewer behavioral and psychiatric symptoms.
Kids seem to benefit as well. Research from the United Kingdom identified 22 studies that measured the impact of pet ownership on children’s emotional, social, cognitive, and behavioral development. The benefits for children living with pets included a lowered risk of anxiety, higher self-esteem, and less likelihood of experiencing serious mental health problems. And although not as conclusive, the review also found some evidence that children with pets are more likely to demonstrate empathy and higher levels of social interaction, especially when there is a special bond with the pet.
There isn’t comprehensive evidence to date about pet owners’ mental health during the pandemic. But one survey of nearly 6,000 people living in England during the initial COVID-19 lockdown found that owning a pet did prevent, to some degree, feelings of loneliness and other mental health symptoms.
Researchers admit more evidence is needed to completely understand the benefits of pet ownership. But based on the evidence available now, having a companion animal can certainly be good for you.
Sheri Hall is a freelance writer and works with Cornell University’s Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research.
Why Children Would Save Animals Over People
Kids and adults think differently about animals.
When I was a kid, a pet changed my life. It was not our family’s lovable mutt Frisky, or even Murphy, my pet duck. No, it was a four-foot-long yellow rat snake named Fred that I got for three bucks when I was 13. He lived in a cage in my bedroom. I was transfixed by his enigmatic stare, alien beauty, and ability to swallow a mouse. I was hooked. Within a year, I had a menagerie of scaly creepy crawlies. And while other kids were rocking out to The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, I was learning the Latin names of snakes and devouring books on reptile behavior and ecology.
Many decades later, my 8-year-old grandson proves to be a kindred spirit when it comes to a love of animals—with a twist. He and I logged on to play the Moral Machine game, which was devised by researchers at MIT to better understand universal ethical principles. When a hypothetical situation involved human versus animal life, I was amazed to see my grandson send a car careening into a person to save a dog.
Researchers from Yale and Harvard recently investigated how children and adults differ in prioritizing people over animals. Their study offered three options—save the people, save the animals, or no decision was made. The differences between the decisions of the children, ages 5 to 9, and the adults were stark. In every scenario, most of the adults opted to save people over dogs or pigs—even if saving one person would cause 100 dogs to die. This was not so among children. In the same scenarios, kids were more likely than adults to save dogs rather than humans. Indeed, a third of the kids would sacrifice a single person to save a single dog. Adults, on the other hand, were four times more likely than the kids to save the life of a person over 100 dogs.
The researchers found that, when compared with adults, children are much less speciesist, that is, less inclined to assume human superiority over other animals. One reason posited for speciesism is evolution. For most of human history, animals played major roles in people’s lives, particularly the creatures that ate us and the ones we ate. Hence, our ancestors may have evolved psychological mechanisms that promoted thinking of other species as separate from humans.
The researchers, however, believe that socialization rather than evolution is the major influence in the development of speciesism. They suggest that humans are not natural species-
ists. Rather, the prejudice against animals is, like racism, a widespread but learned bias that tends to show up during adolescence.
My experience playing the Moral Machine game with my grandson and the innovative studies mentioned indicate that kids tend to give more moral weight to nonhuman animals than adults do. This difference is, in part, the result of socialization and arbitrary cultural norms. But here is another factor: When it comes to difficult moral judgments involving other species, most adults are more sophisticated thinkers than most 5- to 9-year-olds, whose brains have not developed the capacity for abstract thought. They are less likely to conceive of the ramifications of a person's death compared with an animal's.
Recently, I asked my grandson what he would do in a shipwreck situation involving one person or one dog. He immediately said he would save the dog. When I asked him why, his answer was, “Because there are more people than dogs on the earth.”
—Hal Herzog, Ph.D.
Need a Lift?
Gaze at your tail-wagger.
By Mark Derr
It appears that gazing into the eyes of a dog can boost the delightful feel-good hormone oxytocin, according to a report in the publication Science. Plus, the dogs feel a surge in oxytocin, too. The enduring bond between humans and dogs is similar to that of a mother and her infant. The researchers suggest that this form of communication arose early in the domestication of the dog and then helped shape the relationship between dogs and humans.
Oxytocin is a neuropeptide, a protein-like particle that facilitates communication between neurons. Its primary domain appears to be the amygdala, a part of the brain believed to be involved in controlling fear, stress, social interactions, love, empathy, and the bonding with and acceptance of others.
Who wouldn’t want more love and less fear?
Essentially, the researchers conducted two experiments, each involving a total of 60 dogs and their humans—divided into long-gazers and short-gazers. The dogs were largely Western breeds—golden retrievers, Labrador retrievers, poodles, and the like. The first experiment also involved wolves living in shelters. The results of both experiments showed that oxytocin levels rose in the urine of humans on the receiving end of long gazes from their dog companions. Moreover, oxytocin levels also rose in the long-gazing dogs, the researchers reported, but not in the urine of
the short-gazing dogs and their humans. Wolves showed no interest in gazing into the eyes of their human companions.
However, researchers not involved in these experiments say that the conclusion was overdrawn, given the small sample size and the failure to recognize that the manifestations of oxytocin, and other neuropeptides, are often culturally determined and context-dependent. Many dogs will not meet and hold the gaze of their human companions, no matter how tight their bond.
Oxytocin-loop or not, there is little if any evidence that early dogs were desired for their puppy-like charm and reduced aggression. In fact, the opposite is more likely true. As the first domesticated animal, by thousands of years, dogs played essential roles in the survival of their people. They had to adapt to human, not wolf, society and serve as beasts of burden, guards, hunters, sacrifices to the spirits, and food for the starving. n
Mark Derr is the author of many books, including How the Dog Became the Dog and A Dog’s History of America.
Why Orange Cats are Special
Garfield and his breed may enjoy greater social status.
By Karen Wu
Many people think orange cats are the friendliest of all felines. Surveys do suggest that orange cats appear more affectionate. While this could be a result of cat owners looking to support their own stereotypes and preferences, there are other plausible explanations. The gene responsible for the color orange is sex-linked, resulting in a much higher likelihood that an orange cat will be male. And the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science reports that male cats appear to be slightly friendlier than females.
However, might there be another reason, besides gender, that explains the unique behavior of orange cats? A study from Claude Bernard University examined the frequency of the orange gene variant among cat populations and found that orange cats may differ from other cats in a number of ways. To conduct their study, the researchers sampled 30 cat populations in France between 1982 and 1992, collecting data on felines from each population. They found three trends.
1. Orange cats are more common in rural environments. Orange cats may enjoy greater reproductive success in rural areas where the feline mating system is more polygynous: Male cats tend to mate with multiple females, but females tend to mate with only one male. Meanwhile, in urban environments, both female and male cats have multiple mates.
2. Orange cats are less common in areas with greater mortality risk. Orange cats may be more likely to engage in risky behaviors that result in death.
3. Orange cats show greater sexual dimorphism. Orange males weigh more than males of other coat colors, and orange females weigh less than females of other colors.
These trends led the researchers to a theory: Due to physical and behavioral differences, orange cats (males in particular) may rely on a different reproductive strategy. Specifically, because they are larger in size (and likely more aggressive given previously documented links between a male cat’s body size and aggression towards other cats), orange male cats may enjoy greater social status and thus higher reproductive success in rural locations.
However, in urban settings, their social status may not get them as far. In these environments, female cats tend to mate with many male cats. As a result, reproductive success is dependent on sperm competition rather than physical competition among males. Moreover, the competitive nature of orange male cats may heighten their risk of death from fighting with other cats or animals, thus driving down the number of orange cats. This idea is supported by past findings that larger male cats are more dominant, resulting in greater reproductive success but greater mortality risk.
Although these color-based behavioral associations may seem odd, they are found among other animals, including rodents and birds, as reviewed in the Claude Bernard University research. Certain genes responsible for behavior or other physical attributes, such as body size, may be inherited alongside those responsible for fur color.
This study identifies several unique characteristics of orange cats; however, it does not explain why orange cats are friendlier toward humans. If this stereotype is true, might it be attributed to the risk-taking behaviors of these special cats? Perhaps orange males, due to their dominant status and bold personalities, feel more comfortable approaching humans, who often frighten timid cats.
Karen Wu, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of psychology at California State University, Los Angeles.
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