Magazine article UNESCO Courier

People and Pets

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

People and Pets

Article excerpt

People and pets

PET keeping is virtually ubiquitous among human groups. People have kept domesticated animals for at least 10,000 years, and have captured, tamed and kept wild animals as companions, without breeding them, for considerably longer. Although the initial impetus for domestication is unclear, the first breeding of animals, in the Mesolithic period, was probably associated with favourable environmental changes in specific areas which dramatically increased the availability of food. According to the archaeological records, dogs were the first and cats the second domesticated pets.

The importance of pet animals in modern industrial society is repeatedly demonstrated in the popular press, movies and books. Pets, and dogs in particular, are often characterized as man's "best friend". From a symbolic perspective, pets may well represent the lost relationship of the mother to the infant; that is complete and total devotion, love, and adoration. They can help bridge the developmental transitions from infancy to childhood; from dependence to independence; from isolation to social integration at varying times and stages in our lives. While the relationship between people and their pets may be a symbol for the relationship of a mother to an infant, the species difference constitutes a fundamental distinction, providing emotional continuity without negating our individuality.

Prior to the last decade there were few scientific studies of the benefits of interactions between people and pets. Freud recognized the unique and important role of pets in people's lives: "It really explains," he wrote, "why one can love an animal ... with such an extraordinary intensity; affection without ambivalence, the simplicity free from the almost unbearable conflicts of civilization, the beauty of an existence complete in itself ... that feeling of intimate affinity, of an undisputed solidarity." However, his warm regard for them was not expressed in a clinical interest. Most information about the value of pets to their people was based upon anecdotal information, compilations of personal stories of the amazing devotion, intelligence and restorative powers of individual pets or particular breeds, without the support of systematic scientific investigation.

In the last ten years the common belief that "pets are good for you" has gained scientific support. Pets decrease owners' loneliness and depression by providing companionship, an impetus for nurturance, and a source of meaningful daily activities. They also decrease owners' anxiety and stress levels by providing contact comfort, a relaxing focus for attention, and a feeling of safety. In addition, a pet can help its owner improve or maintain physical fitness by providing an impetus for exercise. While most researchers into the effects of animals on health have concentrated on dogs, there is considerable evidence that other pets are equally beneficial.

Loneliness may cause or worsen illnesses and can even lead to death, and the company of a pet can promote health by ameliorating the pathological effects of lack of contact with family members or close friends. Pets can be particularly beneficial to elderly people, who are especially vulnerable to loneliness and isolated from their families and friends. They act as companions to their owners, many of whom consider their pets to be family members, talk to them frequently as if they were people, and think their pets are sensitive to their moods.

In the course of a study of the social, psychological and physiological factors affecting the survival of patients with coronary heart disease (severe chest pain or heart attack), pet ownership was related to one year survival. Only three of fifty-three pet owners died within one year of admission to a large urban university hospital while eleven of thirty-nine non-pet owners covered by the study died in the same period. As expected, the best predictor of survival was the severity of the illness. …

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