Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

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Pets For all Seasons

People who have had a chance to talk with Queen Elizabeth report she is so fond of the Korgi dog pets that she scarcely talks about anything else. Perhaps because he is British, then, Professor James Serpell seems natural to have been elected chairman of a new department at the University of Pennsylvania Veterinary School, devoted to the study of Human-Animal Interactions. In any event, he made an interesting presentation to the Right Angle Club recently, reviewing the history of acquiring pets. A domesticated animal is not necessarily a pet; chickens and cows raised for food purposes are not considered real pets. A pet is domesticated purely for the purpose of companionship and love. Study of cave paintings and fossils seems to show that pets were maintained for many years before animals were domesticated for food purposes, although hunting dogs might have utility beyond providing love and companionship. The ancient nature of pets does seem to suggest purposes other than utility have been prized for a very long time, and not exclusively by people who are affluent.

Pets are steadily increasing in number, however, and are estimated as approaching 160 million, a number growing faster than the human population of the earth. The human residents of the earth are just about the only species known to make pets of other species, although monkeys will occasionally treat marmosets in a pet-like way. There might still be some utilitarian purposes in keeping pets, however; a goat companion is observed to have a calming effect on wild horses. For something whose utility is marginal, pets are a pretty expensive hobby. It is estimated that $45 billion is annually spent on them. A non-pet lover was once heard to remark that a cat is a domesticated parasite. Apparently, you either love pets or you don't.

It probably hasn't much to do with the motives of pet-lovers, but research does seem to show that those who maintain pets live longer than those who do not, whether the pet is a cat, dog, or rabbit. Pet owners have lower average blood pressure and score better on tests which reflect the prevailing stress level. In spite of snide remarks sometimes heard about people who love pets better than their neighbors, tests of interpersonal relationships actually seem to favor pet lovers.

In recent decades, there has been a growing tendency to confer rights, animal rights, on animals in general, and pets in particular. Remarkably, animal rights advocates seem to be more common in urban environments, than in rural ones. Perhaps the experience of wringing a chicken by the neck in order to prepare dinner hardens the heart. Next thing you know, the Tea Party phenomenon will start getting blamed on observations like this, so watch your language, please.

Originally published: Monday, March 29, 2010; most-recently modified: Wednesday, August 07, 2019