Harold Herzog is a research psychologist who has been investigating aspects of human-animal relations for over 30 years. These have included studies of the moral thinking of cockfighters, the psychology behind animal activism, gender differences in attitudes animals, the evolution of pet-keeping, and the effectiveness of animal assisted therapy. Herzog is Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Western Carolina University; he’s also the author of the book Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It’s So Hard To Think Straight About Animals, and writes a blog on human-animal interactions for Psychology Today Magazine called “Animals and Us.”
Animals are wonderful. No doubt. But sometimes, we just don’t give them the true importance they deserve, right?
I’ve read Professor Herzog’s article Can Pet Crickets Improve the Well-being of the Elderly? and you should totally give it a look; it’s quite interesting and simple in its own unique way. Luckily, I was able to contact the author and, let me say, everything was quite enjoyable.
You first talked about your friend’s father experience, and it’s pretty understandable why he was happier after getting a dog: a new friend, and a special one. My first question is: could everyone feel the same happy feelings like his or maybe someone still can’t be happy owning any kind of animal?
Great question. Some people seem naturally attracted to animals while others are not. For example, my three kids were raised with pets, but only one of them is really an “animal person.” In non-scientific surveys I have done on classes, about 1/3rd of my students report that someone in their family does not like or is afraid of the family pet. Unfortunately there are hardly any studies of people who do not like animals, so we don’t know much about why some people loves animals so deeply and others do not.
How did you find about the pet effect? Do you think that it’s just a matter of psychology, both of humans and animals, or there’s something more?
The idea of the pet effect really started in the 1980s when researchers reported that people with pets were more likely to survive heart attacks. There have been a lot of studies since then. Some of these have found that people with pets are healthier and happier than people without pets, but other studies have found no differences between pet owners and non-owners. We do know that interacting with dogs has a temporary effect in terms of lowering blood pressure and relieving stress. There is evidence that this is due to changes in brain chemistry, but the exact mechanisms are a matter of debate.
We, as humans, are used (most of us at least) to see insects as repulsive creatures; do you think that some of us may get over this fact and try to overcome our prejudices about them if they can help us to become happier?
It is certainly possible. While crickets have been popular pets in China for many years, they only recently caught on as pets in Korea. Indeed, popular pets come and go in many countries, including the United States. For example, my colleagues and I have studied fads for dog breeds. We have found that from the beginning of the boom to the end of the bust, dog breeds fads last about 25 years. Odd types of pets have also become temporarily popular in the United States. These include baby turtles, caged canaries, hedgehogs, miniature pigs, ferrets, and sugar gliders. So it is possible that crickets could be the next big thing.
Does the culture of each different Country influence our choices in what animal should we adopt? For example, the first choice that may come in mind wouldn’t be a cricket, at least for most of us, while in Korea, as stated in your article, there would be a higher chance to get them instead of something else.
Absolutely! Dogs are a good example. Because dogs are considered unclean in Islam, they are rarely kept as pets in Arab countries. In the multiethnic country of Sri Lanka, about 80% of Buddhist and Christian home include a dog, but less than 5% of Muslim households include a dog. While we dote on our pets, in some cultures pets simply do not exist.
The effects caused in getting a pet can vary from person to person; but does it depend specifically on the animal we choose? Taking care of a dog creates more or less positive effects than taking care of a cat, or is it just the same?
Yes. The human-dog relationship seems to be unique. Humans have been living with dogs for at least 14,000 years, longer than any other domestic animal. When people say things like “pets give us unconditional love” they are nearly always thinking about dogs. While cats have been hanging out with humans for thousands of years, some authorities argue that they are not completely domesticated in that we have only been selectively breeding them for a couple of hundred years. No wonder they are more independent. One of my cat loving friends says that compared to cats, dogs are suck-ups. I think she may be right.
You talked about unconditional love and/or social support provided by our pets: how can we get social support by a cricket for example? What does it depend on?
No one is arguing that crickets give their owners social support. People keep pets for lots of reasons besides unconditional love and social support. By sheer numbers, the most popular pets in America are aquarium fish, and they certainly don’t provide unconditional love. The same is true of pet boa constrictors, bearded dragons (a lizard), hamsters, or hermit crabs. And while I give my cat Tilly unconditional love, she does not reciprocate. I suspect that some of the psychological benefits we get from pets is simply because they give us something to do, something to concentrate on beside ourselves.
Animals, in general, are a part of our life: do we create connections with them thanks to the cooperation between both of the parts?
This is certainly true to the human-dog connection, and, perhaps to a lesser degree, with our relationships with cats. However, there is a lot that we still do not know about why humans bring pets into our lives. Anthrozoology, the new science of human-animal interactions, is still in its infancy. And we still have a lot to learn about the roles other species play in our lives.