Why are people so keen on pets?

The Lady with an Ermine
The Lady with an Ermine

Don’t get me wrong. I like animals; I just don’t like them in my house. Every time I petsit for friends with cats, I am reminded of why I don’t own cats: scooping feces is repulsive (and don’t get me started on toxoplasma Gondii!) Dogs are marginally better, in that the homes of dog owners don’t always smell of feces, but unfortunately they often smell of dog.

For this post, I am defining “pet” as animals that people keep solely for companionship. Animals kept because they do useful things or materially benefit their owners, like seeing eye dogs, egg-laying chickens, mouse-hunting cats, race horses, or dancing bears are not “pets.” Medical “therapy animals” are basically pets. It makes plenty of sense for people to keep around work animals, but pets seem to be kept around simply for the enjoyment of their company.

According to Wikipedia, Americans own approximately 94 million cats, 78 million dogs, 172 million fish, and 45 million small mammals, fish, reptiles, etc. (Though of course some of these are “useful” animals that I wouldn’t count.) This comes out to about 4x as many pets as children, concentrated in 60% of the households (most pet owners have more than one.)

Pets cost quite a bit of money–the average small dog costs about $7,000 to $13,000 over its 14 year lifespan; the average large dog costs $6,000 to $8,000 over its much shorter 8 year lifespan. [source] (Note that it is cheaper per year to own a small dog; the lower lifetime cost is due entirely to their shorter lifespans.) Cats cost about the same as dogs–people don’t spend much on “outdoor” cats, but “indoor” cats cost about $9,000 to $11,000 over their lifetimes.

Just making some rough estimates, I’d say it looks people spend $700 per year per dog or cat, which comes out to about 120 billion dollars per year. That’s a lot of money! (And this doesn’t count the expenses incurred by shelters and animal control agencies to take care of the excess pets people don’t want.)

Americans are probably exception in the number of pets they have. According to Wikipedia, 46% of the world’s pet dog population lives in the US. (By contrast, only 4.4% of the world’s human population lives in the US.) The ratio gets even more skewed if we break it down by race–63% of America’s whites own pets, versus only 49% of the non-whites. [source]

However, other countries similar to the US don’t seem as keen on pets: the %pets/%people ratio for the US is 10.5, for Canada 7.5, and for Britain, 5.8. This might have to do with factors like Britain being a more crowded country where people have less space for pets, or with the Wikipedia data being inaccurate. Either way, I think it’s safe to say that pets are very characteristically American, and especially a white American thing.

One theory about why people own so many pets is that they’re substitute children/companions/friends for lonely people who don’t have kids/spouses/friends, perhaps as a side effect of our highly atomized culture. I came into this post expecting to confirm this, but it looks like Crazy Cat Ladies are actually a relatively small percent of the overall pet-owning population.

According to Gallop, 50% of married people own a dog, and 33% own a cat (some people own both.) By contrast, only 37% of unmarried people own dogs and only 25% own cats. People with children under 18 are more likely to own pets than people without. And people from the “East” are less likely to own pets than people from the “West.” (Interestingly, “westerners” are disproportionately more likely to own cats.)

So it looks to me like most pet ownership is actually motivated by the idea that kids should have pets, with pets more common in suburban or rural areas where they have more room to run around. This is probably particularly so for cats, who are probably more likely to be “outdoor” pets or mouse-catching farm cats in rural areas (ie, the “West.”)

There is an extensive belief–perhaps folk belief–that pet ownership is good for people. Gallop found that 60% of people believe that pet owners lead more satisfying lives than non-pet owners; numerous studies claim that pet ownership–or even just occasional interaction–makes people healthier. There even exists an “animal therapy” industry. Unfortunately, the studies on the subject look rather unreliable–the ones about pet ownership are confounded by healthier people being more likely to have pets in the first place, for example.

And yet, there’s something about the notion that I find appealing; something about playing with happy puppies or petting a bunny that I find downright pleasant. Maybe it’s something as simple as animals being nice and therefore making people happy.

It’s getting late, so I’ll continue this tomorrow.

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9 thoughts on “Why are people so keen on pets?

  1. The domestication of cats and dogs is another white European trait/achievement to be sneered at, like Christmas and small nuclear family units. I have never found cat or dog ownership to be risible or somehow in need of explanation. Like, what is UP with YT and his cat pics you guys?

    Crazy cat lady is worth a hundred dog-slaying Muslims.

    Like

    • Dogs were domesticated in Europe, but I think cats were first domesticated in the Near East, where grain farming first began, due to their attraction to the mice who were attracted to big piles of grain. But they are certainly extremely popular in the US/Europe.

      I don’t think anyone *actually* thinks pets are in need of explanation.

      Like

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