Title Illustration by Charlotte Shen
Of those who’ve been emerging from a prolonged stint of self-isolation, many may well have a pet to thank for helping them get through it and keep their grip on sanity and emotional wellbeing. It’s been a long road for so many, and so it is with the journey of people and pets. Read on for a brief history of not only how our relationship to animals has evolved over the millennia, but how they change us over the course of a sometimes all-too-short life together.
Most people would likely guess, and be correct, that in the earliest days of human civilization, animals were regarded by our brutish ancestors as a potential source of life-sustaining meat and protective skins to shelter them against the elements.
Starting about 12,000 years ago, paleolithic peoples started discovering that wolves had a kind of ambiguous attitude towards us – a mixture of fear and curiosity. Wolf cubs raised by people would, in many cases, remained loyal as adults, and could even be trained. Canines and humans were natural partners, as the people provided safer existence – shelter against rivals and the elements, as well as meals that didn’t bite back or require exhausting long-distance hunts. The dogs, on the other hand, proved capable security guards with their acute hearing and sense of smell, which also assisted in hunts.
An odd thing happened around the same time we were getting used to the idea of keeping dogs; we realized that aside from all of the practical benefits, we enjoyed their companionship. We felt better when they were around.
Humans from the paleolithic period have been found not only buried with their canine companions, but with their arms laid over them in a show of affection.
Moving forward to the Middle Ages and beyond, keeping pets became fashionable among the wealthy classes, with lap dogs for the women and hunting partners like hounds and falcons favored choices for men.
There were periods where religion got in the way; the Catholic church discouraging pet keeping, saying it was linked to Paganism and that the food given to animals would be better kept for the poor.
The modern popularity of keeping pets can probably be traced to Victorian England – by the turn of the 20th century, dog shows were common and breeds and standards formalized.
Nowadays, the keeping of pets is ubiquitous, and not reserved for the upper classes of society. The breadth of roles they play in our lives is large: from superficial symbols of social status to life-saving (or enhancing) roles as police dogs, explosives detectors, therapy dogs and guides for the blind.
For the vast majority of us, pets play what for us is an invaluable role – friend. Beyond that, pets are often, if not usually, considered part of the family. As such, those who’ve shared a portion of their lives with a furry, feathered or scaled companion will attest to some of the benefits they’ve derived.
They are our shoulder to cry on when no one knows our pain.
When no one else can or wants to, or if they just wouldn’t understand, pets listen to our problems and gripes patiently, unwaveringly supportive and without a word of protest. When we’re stressed out, cold and lonely, they cuddle up to us and settle us into peaceful sleep.
Pets calm our anxiety; when we’re depressed, they give us a reason to get up in the morning and put on a more cheerful tone.
They make us kinder, more sympathetic and responsible people.
Some of these have more recently been supported by science:
- Dogs Can Improve Your Social Life
Dogs (and potentially any pet that comes out with you) can improve your social life. Some studies have shown that people are more likely to approach you and interact with you if your pet is with you. Heck, this may even improve your chances of finding true love! Good news for the many like me who struggle with some degree of social anxiety, and I can personally attest to the increased interactions and feeling of ease I’ve had when out in public if my pooch was with me.
Pets Improve Your Emotional State
Everyone knows that pets make fun times funner and bad times less bad. Just being able to interact with a creature who we believe exists for us, who listens without interrupting, who is always waiting for us when we get home – improves our mood by a notch or three. But studies seem to link at least some of this mood enhancement t the so-called “love hormone”, oxytocin.
- Dogs Can Strengthen Your Immune System
Although some conservative moms and dads liked to cite “cleanliness” and “hygiene” as factors responsible for their refusal to grant their kids pleas to bring a pet into the home, science seems to indicate just the opposite. Far from compromising our health by exposing us to harmful germs, dogs (and perhaps cats who frequent outdoor spaces) actually introduce microorganisms that diversify our gut microbiome, and this study showed that petting dogs stimulated the production of immunoglobulin A, the antibody that plays an important role in immune function. These benefits even extend to babies!
- Pets Make Us More Physically Active
It makes common sense that owning a pet can imbue us with a basic level of responsibility that we may have lacked beforehand – after all, their lives literally depend on us. Part of that responsibility, with dogs anyway, is ensuring they get enough exercise to stay healthy. It stands to reason that this would translate to more exercise for dog owners, and this New York Times article notes an extensive study by the University of Liverpool confirming that dog owners spend as much as three times as long walking each week than non-dog owners.
If you’re not in the position of planning to raise a child, pets may be the best way to feel connected to something outside of yourself and, indeed connected to the world. It’s good to know that our bond brings us benefits both real and perceived, so hey – surely we want to know what we can do for them! Well, let’s talk more about that in the next article!
Want to share how a pet has improved your life? Do so in the comments below!