Pets Are Good For Us—But Not In The Ways We Think They Are

An animal expert debunks myths about our furry companions.

John Bradshaw and his colleagues had to invent a new word—and the new field of “anthrozoology”—to describe their work studying the interactions between animals and humans. In his new book, The Animals Among Us, Bradshaw now demolishes a few myths about the pets that increasingly crowd our homes. [Find out if your dog would eat you if you died.]

Speaking from his home in Southampton, England, Bradshaw explains why most scientists didn’t consider the bond between humans and their pets an important area of research; why women of the Awa-Gauja tribe in the Amazon breastfeed monkeys; and why having an animal in the house is so important, especially for kids whose world has increasingly been reduced to a smartphone screen. [Discover why your dog eats poop.]


COURTESY OF HACHETTE BOOK GROUP

One of the myths you question is that keeping pets is good for us. I think most pet owners know they are!

Initial research showed that people with pets survived longer after heart attacks than people without pets. The most likely explanation is that these were people who, other than having a heart attack, were in a better state of health than people who did not or could not have pets for a variety of reasons.

This has been borne out recently in studies by the Rand Corporation, which looked at large samples of people from California. They showed that pet keeping is practiced by people who can afford it, not just in financial terms but also in terms of lifestyle. People who are settled, have children, who live in a house rather than an apartment, and—to put it bluntly—are white have better health. But it’s not because of the pets. The pet is the consequence of the healthy life, not the cause of it.

Other assumptions you question are whether animals can feel embarrassment or guilt, and whether their minds are capable of deliberate planning. I think if you saw our Dalmatian’s face after he has been bad—or when he is carefully planning his escape from the yard—you might reconsider!

[Laughs] Yes, I can see that. People do interpret these behaviours as if they are intentional. The question is, what kinds of emotions do they feel? Alexandra Horowitz in New York showed that the guilty look is actually a sign of the dog’s very acute ability to read human body language.

Dogs put the guilty look on almost before the owner knows it’s time to get angry about something the dog has done. They almost seem to react as fast as our conscious minds can. As soon as you look at the dog, the dog is already looking guilty.

You make the assumption that the dog was looking guilty before you looked at it. But the science shows that the dog doesn’t start looking guilty until the moment the owner’s body language is visible to it. You don't have to say anything. It can be just a slight stiffening in posture.

So, what kind of mental abilities do you need to feel guilt? In our human terms, guilt is quite sophisticated. You have to compare something you have done at some point in the past with some internal norm, which you have learned over the course of a long period of time. There’s no evidence that the canine mind can do that.

I am not saying that dogs are stupid. Their minds are very good at doing what they do. They can react more quickly to human body language than humans can. But we anthropomorphise, assuming they emotionalise identically to us, and that’s the mistake.

As for deliberate planning, there’s also been a lot of research but not so much into dogs. The problem is making comparisons between animals. Although we all have a vertebrate, mammalian brain, the details of the construction are quite different. The cerebral cortex, the bit we do most of our thinking with, is reduced in dogs. They rely a lot more on smell, decoding odours. They do have a limited ability to plan, if they’ve encountered a particular situation before. But they can’t imagine themselves into a situation they’ve never been in.


A calico cat named Cassie at the Capital Humane Society in Lincoln, Nebraska.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JOEL SARTORE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

You helped coin the term “anthrozoology.” Explain what it means—and why it was needed.

It’s the study of human-animal interactions. It is an evolved word that started with a journal at Tufts University, in Boston, about five years before we founded the society with the same name. It was necessary to have a word to describe what we were doing because it wasn’t conventional zoology. 

At the time, in the 1990s, zoologists who worked on domesticated animals, like I did, were regarded as an inferior race. [Laughs] So the few of us who were interested in these things decided we would form a society to bring the various disparate threads together, from zoology, psychology, and other sciences. You can now get degrees in anthrozoology in quite a number of countries, including the UK and the United States. It’s taken shape more than we thought it might even 25 years ago.

In some societies, women breastfed animals. What purpose did this have?

The Awa Guaja are a matriarchal society, and monkeys are taken from the wild and given to the women. The men are generally the ones who kill the baby monkey’s mother. The babies are then brought back, breastfed and then fed on pre-chewed food and eventually fruit and nuts. They are a status symbol. The head woman, the matriarch of the village, is allowed to have the most monkeys. They drape themselves over her head and shoulders, like a badge of office.

In Japan, there is a tradition among the Ainu people, whereby women breastfeed bear cubs as part of a status-building exercise. Their family would go out at the beginning of spring when adult female bears are coming out of hibernation and have cubs with them, and take the cubs away. The cubs have not been weaned at this point, so they have to be fed on milk, and they’re breast fed because that’s part of the ritual. Later, there is a bear meat feast where these bears are killed and the surrogate human mothers get very upset. It’s not clear from the accounts whether they are genuinely upset or if it’s just part of the ritual. I suspect it’s partly both.


Downtown the tabby cat at the Capital Humane Society in Lincoln, Nebraska.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JOEL SARTORE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

You write that “pets are, to a certain extent, imaginary constructions,” and that the idea of animals being “heroes” is misleading. I know a lot of people won’t agree with that idea, so can you explain it for us?

There are a number of concepts in there. The one I object to is the idea that an animal can be a hero. Heroism is a fairly doubtful concept even in human terms. Why do people sacrifice themselves for the greater good? It’s easy enough to rationalise it after the event. In the heat of the moment, that’s not something I’m qualified to talk about. But it’s not as altruistic as we make it seem to be afterwards.

To be a hero, if there is such a thing, an animal would have to consciously give up something and put itself at risk in a situation where it knows it’s at risk. I don’t think that any of the animals that have been given awards show this.

They’ve been put at risk by their human handlers—not deliberately of course. They went with their handler to a place where the handler was attacked and the dog did what it was trained to do: defend the handler. The dog wasn’t doing that because it had some greater good in the back of its mind. No dog’s mind thinks like that.

To some degree, our minds turn everything we see into an imaginary construction. What we’re doing with pets is mainly an anthropomorphic arrangement. We tend to imagine that they have thoughts and intentions rather like ours, but are just not able to express them quite as well as we can. This is an important part of the human mind. We like to project our minds onto everything. That includes our pets!

Do you have pets, John? If so, tell us about them and what they have taught you?

Not at the moment. I have a grandson who’s very allergic and so we’re having a break. But I’ve had pets for 40-plus years, ever since I was a student. That said, I’m not really any more of a pet enthusiast than the average family man. I’m a biologist who studies pets.

I’ve had a succession of dogs who’ve taught me a great deal about what it’s like to be a dog. I’ve had a succession of cats that have lived in the house, bred, and raised their kittens, so I’ve experienced and enjoyed the whole life span for both species. This has taught me how different these two animals are. Above all, my pets have taught me the individuality of animals and how, if possible, we should treat and think about them as individuals.

Hopefully, for the sake of the animals, our understanding in the future will be tempered by better knowledge of what the animal is imagining about us, which may be quite different to what we think it might be. The research is not finished by any means, but so far there has been no indication that dogs think about us. But they are capable of thinking that we think about them. [Laughs]

They interpret our behaviour in quite a sophisticated way. But what scientists have yet to get to grips with is what kinds of rules they use to interpret our behaviour.

What doesn’t seem to be the case is that they know what we’re thinking. It’s much more about being able to analyse what we’re doing on a microsecond basis, compare that with a data bank of what’s happened in the past, and react very quickly. This convinces us that they know what we’re thinking when, in fact, they may not at all.

I do think having animals around is essential but until I started doing research, I didn’t know why. It was something I just felt, and a lot of other people feel, that you are somehow a lesser person without this kind of contact.


Studio portrait of Hank, who is part basset hound and part blue heeler.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JOEL SARTORE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

I don’t distinguish—and most research has borne this out—between pet animals and wild animals. It’s just that pet animals are much more accessible. Contact with wild animals, whether a bird table or feeding a hedgehog in the back garden, is all part of the same thing as having a pet.

Having a pet in the house teaches us what animals are, in a way that watching a cute puppy or kitten video on YouTube does not, especially for kids. It teaches them about animals and the reality of what biology is. So many other things in our lives are being reduced to what we can see and do on a screen. Animals are a healthy antidote to all that.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Simon Worrall curates Book Talk. Follow him on Twitter or at simonworrallauthor.com.

Lead Image: A lab mix at the Capital Humane Society in Lincoln, Nebraska. PHOTOGRAPH BY JOEL SARTORE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

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