Pets, part 2

Picture 5

Americans really love dogs.

So much so, that it feels really dickish to point out that dogs aren’t actually humans and we don’t actually treat them like full family members. Maybe this is just the American difficulty with shades of gray, where such an argument is seen as the moral equivalent of eating puppies for breakfast, or maybe extreme dog affection is an instinctual mental trait of healthy people, and so only abnormal weirdos claim that it sounds irrational.

As we discussed yesterday, pet ownership is normal (in that the majority of Americans own pets,) and pet owners themselves are disproportionately married suburbanites with children. However, pet ownership is also somewhat exceptional, in that Americans–particularly American whites–appear globally unique in their high degree of affection for pets.

Incidentally, 76% of dog owners have bought Christmas presents for their dogs. (I’ve even done this.)

Why do people love dogs (and other pets) so much?

The Wikipedia cites a couple of theories, eg:

Wilson’s (1984) biophilia hypothesis is based on the premise that our attachment to and interest in animals stems from the strong possibility that human survival was partly dependent on signals from animals in the environment indicating safety or threat. The biophilia hypothesis suggests that now, if we see animals at rest or in a peaceful state, this may signal to us safety, security and feelings of well-being which in turn may trigger a state where personal change and healing are possible.

Since I tend to feel overwhelmingly happy and joyful while walking in the woods, I understand where this theory comes from, but it doesn’t explain why suburban white parents like pets more than, say, single Chinese men, or why hunter-gatherers (or recently settled hunter-gatherers) aren’t the most avid pet-owners (you would think hunter-gatherers would be particularly in tune with the states of the animals around them!)

So I propose a different theory:

Pets are (mostly) toy versions of domestic animals.

Europeans–and Americans–have traditionally been engaged in small-scale farming and animal husbandry, raising chickens, pigs, cattle, horses, sheep, and occasionally goats, geese, turkeys, and ducks.

Dogs and cats held a special place on the farm. Dogs were an indispensable part of their operations, both to protect the animals and help round them up, and worked closely with the humans in farm management. Much has been written on the relationship between the shepherd and his sheep, but let us not overlook the relationship between the shepherd and his dog.

Cats also did their part, by eliminating the vermin that were attracted to the farmer’s grain.

These dogs and cats are still “working” animals rather than “pets” kept solely for their company, but they clearly enjoy a special status in the farmer’s world, helpers rather than food.

For children, raising “pets” teaches valuable sills necessary for caring for larger animals–better to make your learning mistakes when the only one dependent on you is a hamster than when it’s a whole flock of sheep and your family’s entire livelihood.

Raising pets provides an additional benefit in creating the bond between a child and dog that will eventually transform into the working relationship between farmer and farm-dog.

Empathy has probably played an important role in animal domestication–the ability to understand the animal’s point of view and care about its well being probably helps a lot when trying to raise it from infancy to adulthood. People with higher levels of empathy may have been better at domesticating animals in the first place, and living in an economy dependent on animal husbandry may have also selected for people with high levels of empathy.

In other words, people who treated their dogs well have probably been more evolutionarily successful than people who didn’t, pushing us toward instinctually treating dogs like one of the family. (Though I still think that people who sell cancer treatments for cats and dogs are taking advantage of gullible pet owners and that actually treating an animal just like a human is a bad idea. I also find it distasteful to speak of adopted dogs finding their “forever homes,” a phrase lifted from human adoption.)

However, if you’ve ever interacted with humans, you’ve probably noticed by now that some would give their dog their right kidney, and some would set a dog on fire without blinking.

(I am reminded here of the passage in Phillipe Bourgois’s In Search of Respect in which the anthropologist is shocked to discover that violent Nuyorican crack dealers think torturing animals is funny.)

I have been looking for a map showing the historical distribution of domesticated animals in different parts of the globe, but have so far failed. I’d be most grateful if anyone can find one. To speak very generally, Australia historically had no domesticated animals, South America had llamas, North America had dogs, African hunter-gatherers didn’t have any, African horticulturalists had a chicken-like animal, and then Europe/Asia/The Middle East/India/other Africans had a large variety of animals, like camels and yaks and horses and goats.

Peter Frost has written a lot on empathy (and guilt), and the possibility that it varies between populations:

…a deletion variant of the ADRA2b gene. Carriers remember emotionally arousing images more vividly and for a longer time, and they also show more activation of the amygdala when viewing such images (Todd and Anderson, 2009; Todd et al., 2015). … Among the Shors, a Turkic people of Siberia, the incidence was 73%. Curiously, the incidence was higher in men (79%) than in women (69%). It may be that male non-carriers had a higher death rate, since the incidence increased with age (Mulerova et al., 2015). … The picture is still incomplete but the incidence of the ADRA2b deletion variant seems to range from a low of 10% in some sub-Saharan African groups to a high of 50-65% in some European groups and 55-75% in some East Asian groups. Given the high values for East Asians, I suspect this variant is not a marker for affective empathy per se but rather for empathy in general (cognitive and affective). [source]

The Shors are a small, formerly semi-nomadic group from Siberia. I haven’t found out much about them, but I bet they had dogs, like other Siberian groups.

Frost hypothesizes that extensive empathy developed as part of the suit of mental traits that made life possible in large communities of bronze-age hunter-gatherers along the Baltic:

This weak kinship zone may have arisen in prehistory along the coasts of the North Sea and the Baltic, which were once home to a unique Mesolithic culture (Price, 1991). An abundance of marine resources enabled hunter-fisher-gatherers to achieve high population densities by congregating each year in large coastal agglomerations for fishing, sealing, and shellfish collecting. Population densities were comparable in fact to those of farming societies, but unlike the latter there was much “churning” because these agglomerations formed and reformed on a yearly basis. Kinship obligations would have been insufficient to resolve disputes peaceably, to manage shared resources, and to ensure respect for social rules. Initially, peer pressure was probably used to get people to see things from the other person’s perspective. Over time, however, the pressure of natural selection would have favored individuals who more readily felt this equivalence of perspectives, the result being a progressive hardwiring of compassion and shame and their gradual transformation into empathy and guilt (Frost, 2013a; Frost, 2013b).

Empathy and guilt are brutally effective ways to enforce social rules. If one disobeys these internal overseers, the result is self-punishment that passes through three stages: anguish, depression and, ultimately, suicidal ideation. [source]

Someone has been reading a lot of Dostoyevsky. But I’m wondering if the first ingredient is actually farming/animal husbandry.

To sum:

1. People with high levels of empathy may have had an easier time domesticating animals/raising domesticated animals, creating a feedback loop of increasing empathy in farming populations.

2. This empathetic connection was strongest with dogs and cats, who aren’t meat to be slaughtered but human partners.

3. Children assigned the task of raising dogs and cats bonded with their charges.

4. Modern “pets” are (living) toy versions of the working dogs and cats who once helped manage the farms.


Poll time!

1. Do you have a pet?

2. Do you think pets should be treated like family members/humans?

3. Would you shoot your pet for a million dollars?

A. Never!

B. Yes, but I would use the money to raise 100 abandoned animals out of suffering.

C. Yes.

D. That’s a terrible question! What kind of sick fuck makes up a question like that?

11 thoughts on “Pets, part 2

  1. I’ve recently been annoyed by some family members’ insistences that animal lives matter just as much as human lives. Clearly this position seemed born of extreme decadence, to me. Part for the course of pathological altruism. This post, however, reminds me that there may have been historical instances where this position made sense–as in when one’s strongest horse/sled dog/ploughing animal was prioritized in order to make it thru the season/thru winter/back home. Hmmmmmmmm.

    I do feel compassion for animals. I also have the wish that the grand megafauna (and the lesser animals) won’t go extinct. But my answer is of course yes, after figuring out how to make it minimally painful. Certainly I value the lives of my human companions much more, ha!


  2. 1. Yes
    2. ‘like’? Sure, if you like. ‘as equivalent to human’? No.

    3. I’d be very skeptical of the motives of the person making the offer. A million dollars is worth more to me than a live pet, but why is it worth less to someone else than my dead pet? What am I not being told?

    My ‘D’ response isn’t to the question, but to answer B. It feels “mercenary”, in that it’s willing to do something ‘bad’ to one party but justifies it by doing ‘good’ to others.

    (apologies if this is duplicate – fixed wording)


  3. Overall reaction: Of course I agree. Good points!

    More reactions:

    “Someone has been reading a lot of Dostoyevsky.” I laughed.

    On farm dogs, also look at the way competitors in sheepdog trials are listed: “[Shepherd’s Name] and [Dog’s Name]”–they are partners and that’s how everyone involved thinks of them.

    A blog post on a similar topic:

    At yesterday’s sheepdog finals, we watched handlers demand that their dogs abandon the evidence of their senses, their deepest instincts, and most of their considerable training, for a faith-based exercise:

    Leave your corporeal sheep, which you *have*, trust me and the ovine gods that they will not escape despite the fact that you can see them getting away, go to a place you have never been, and fetch my imaginary sheep that you cannot see, and which were not there a minute ago when you could have seen them….

    Most of the dogs did, after skeptical resistance, take their go back commands, and were rewarded for their faith (or willingness to humor the madman holding the car keys) with the sheepdog’s favorite treat, *more sheep*.

    I was sitting in the bleachers with the regular spectators when one little bitch worked through this crisis.

    She’d left her ten sheep after [driving them through the gate], endured the torture of having them trot off towards the [other gate], reversed her course on her handler’s whistles, and then become overcome by doubt or confusion or both.

    She stopped, looking in the direction the whistles promised sheep. I think she actually sat down, but would not swear to it.

    She could not see sheep; the topography was against her. (We human spectators could see the sheep and the set-out crew in the distance, but the dogs could not.)

    The women sitting around me — ordinary spectators, dog owners for sure, but no more sheepdog experts than I am — all agreed.

    /She’s thinking./

    The dog whose thinking we could feel in our bones on the bleacher was over half a kilometer away, and presented as a small black period (Century Schoolbook) against a dun page of dead grass. I’d left my binoculars in the car.

    /Still thinking./

    The period elongated a tiny smidge upward, into a comma.

    /She’s got it!/

    And she had; in an instant she was sailing on her handler’s whistles, away, away, on a lovely outrun for sheep she now believed in.

    That’s a good description of the kinds of empathy that help with stockwork. Both the kind that helps you understand what the dog is thinking, and also the kind that helps you read the stock, and/or the dog, from half a kilometer away.

    In other words, people who treated their dogs well have probably been more evolutionarily successful than people who didn’t, pushing us toward instinctually treating dogs like one of the family. (Though I still think that people who sell cancer treatments for cats and dogs are taking advantage of gullible pet owners and that actually treating an animal just like a human is a bad idea. I also find it distasteful to speak of adopted dogs finding their “forever homes,” a phrase lifted from human adoption.)

    (Have you seen the research showing that many humans can distinguish different types of bark?


    This also reminds me of today’s common disagreements between working dog users and many pet owners. A dog can be “one of the family” without being a human. But today’s pet owners often treat a dog either as a human, or else as a pure, innocent creature with no agency, making no choices, understanding nothing. Really, a dog is a dog. Dogs, like humans and other animals, exhibit goal-directed behavior. But their goals are dog goals, not human goals. Their thinking is dog thinking, not human thinking.

    In my earlier comment about sheepdogs I had mentioned “inducing the dog to replace its goals with your own.” And that’s what I was talking about: Dogs naturally have dog goals, but good stockdog handlers can routinely call dogs off a bitch in heat–something pet owners usually assume is impossible. And…well, the blogger I quoted above described the kind of trust a good handler can get from the dog. But to see what the handler is doing (let alone do it yourself), you need the kind of empathy that lets you understand the dog and its doggy goals and thought process.

    And there’s another way in which it often seems today’s [sub]urbanites are missing half of the picture. Among stockdog handlers there’s a saying: “Life is too short to work bad dogs.” The dog earns its place in the family by being (another cliched term) “a useful dog.”

    In this culture, responsibility for your dog (or your breeding livestock in general) includes responsibility to put it to death if necessary. An animal that is actively harmful (such as a vicious dog) must be put to death. An animal that can’t earn its keep (such as a barren animal that had been intended for breeding stock) often must as well. And you pay your final respects to such an animal by killing it *yourself* (or, at worst, getting a more experienced person to do it *while you watch*) rather than pawning this task off on others. In taking on responsibility for the animal, you also take responsibility for giving it a good death whenever necessary.

    Meanwhile, an elderly dog that earned its keep throughout its youth by being a good stockdog, has also earned a retirement rather than death.

    Today’s “netizens” often aren’t part of this culture, but you can see it in old novels such as /A Day No Pigs Would Die/ (uh, spoilers), /One is One/ by Barbara Picard, and, of course, /Old Yeller/.

    So your poll seems to leave out an important part of the picture. Would you shoot your dangerous dog for a million dollars? “It’s inappropriate even to offer the money, it’s my *job* to.” Would you shoot your useful (or elderly formerly-useful) dog for a million dollars? “Of course *not*, he’s earned his keep, he deserves better than that.”

    …back to pet owners, it’s as if today’s pet owners often have the empathy without the culture to direct it properly.

    Another thing. In /Ender’s Game/, Orson Scott Card has a character say of his ant-like aliens that, “Only queen-killing, really, is murder, because only queen-killing cuts off an independent genetic path” (sneaking in an anti-abortion argument in the process). The point applies here: Each dog is an independent genetic recombination–a unique set of strengths, weaknesses and inclinations. IOW, a unique individual with a unique personality.

    And then you put years of training into them too (rule of thumb is a sheepdog reaches full usefulness when he has “as many years on him as feet under him”). (And the training is both easier and more fun if you feel a bond with the animal, since training involves close observation, affection and play rewards as well as food rewards, etc.)

    After these years of training you have a valuable “employee” with, again, unique skills and areas of weakness. Maybe you have a small farm with one all-around farm dog and it’s you who compensates for those weaknesses; or maybe you have a lot of sheep/cattle and several dogs, each of whose strengths make up for another dog’s weaknesses.

    ISTM that (as Celeste suggested) bonding with your animal partners has a “loss-aversion” effect: You don’t easily get rid of a valuable employee, even for what seems like a good price. (It’s even unusual to sell…selling usually happens when there’s a dog/handler personality conflict–not so much when someone says, “That’s a good dog, any chance you’d sell?” I mean, the latter *happens*, but most of the time the answer’s no. And personality conflicts are a real risk of buying an already started dog: The dog may not be willing to work for you the way it worked for its first handler. Buying a dog away from a handler *it* never agreed to leave is riskier than hiring a person away from a beloved boss–at least the *person* *did* agree to leave.)

    For someone who uses working dogs, agreeing to shoot one of them in exchange for money would, in practical terms, require more than just overcoming the instinct and/or culture of treating the dog as part of the family. It would also require taking on another few years of training, and/or a started dog who may not be willing to work for *them*. Possibly at a time when they really couldn’t afford either.

    So I strongly agree–people whose instincts and/or culture kept them from agreeing to such things probably were much better off.

    (Uh, sorry for the length)

    Liked by 1 person

  4. In postmodern urban USA, humans don’t seem to have very strong ties to each other. See the problems with the sexes they’re always talking about in the manosphere, the stigmatization of male bonding, humans always having to lie to each other due to the absolute hegemony of the reigning mendacious ideology and the Putnam study.

    Americans and dogs: US military dogs were simply abandoned (presumably to be eaten by the locals) as “surplus materiel” when the US units returned home as part of the Vietnamization process. OF course it would have been more humane to simply shoot them. That likely wouldn’t happen today.


  5. 1.Yes I have a pet, actually we seem to of ended up with 3 cats somehow.
    2.They get love, but they are definitely differences to humans and how we treat them.
    3.Hell yes if we get a mil for each cat that is enough to retire on. In real world scenario any vet bill that is more than a thousand is going to get budgeted down to euthanasia.


  6. 1. Do you have a pet?

    No, but my parents do, so I grew up with pets. I’m not against owning one; I just haven’t gotten around liking not having cat-hair and dog-smell everywhere.

    2. Do you think pets should be treated like family members/humans?

    Pfft, no. Be treated with affection and not abused, yes. But they’re not humans, and anyone who goes on about how ‘Fido is just another member of the family!’ is a bit wacko.

    3. Would you shoot your pet for a million dollars?

    Without a second thought. Probably not for $1000, though.

    I suspect (as partially mentioned in another post of yours) that another, recent reason for owning pets is that having a living creature dependent upon you and affectionate toward you is pleasant. At the same time, this affection is very easy to gain, because the real needs of any pet animal are very easy to satisfy in our modern economy compared to, say, the needs of the homeless man on the street.

    Whereas, when everyone owns a farm, it’s pretty easy to put someone up and have him work for you as a farm-hand, so long as he’s not obviously defective in some manner.

    I’d be curious to see pet ownership as a percentage of the population over time broken down by not only ethnicity and geography, but also median income, number of children, and income source/vocation. Oh, and of course by population density. (I suspect pet ownership percentage is highest in the suburbs.)


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