The other day I met Edith. Not hilarious Office Edith of San Francisco Animal Care and Control who I follow religiously on Twitter, but Edith the dog who lives on my block.
Edith and I were smart on one another—I gave her scratchies under the chin, and she jumped on me, trying to get her oversized head close to my normal-sized head. It was a good time.
But the moment wasn’t just for me and Edith. As Edith and I cavorted, I small-talked with the guy at the other end of her leash, someone who I otherwise probably wouldn’t have run into. It’s the chatting that raises bigger questions: what is the nature of pet-facilitated interactions and relationships? Are they fleeting hi’s and bye’s or something more extensive? Something that might make people feel more connected to one another?
Lisa Wood of the University of Western Australia—and colleagues in Australia, the U.S., and the U.K.—recently took on these questions in a telephone survey reaching 2,692 people in four large cities, three in the United States (San Diego, Nashville, and Portland), and one in Australia (Perth). The selected cities had somewhat similar demographics, patterns of residential density, and climate conditions. The study was funded by a grant from the WALTHAM Centre for Pet Nutrition, an organization that supports many human-animal relationship studies.
People with pets were generally more likely than those without to get to know others in the neighborhood. And similar to previous findings, dogs reign king as social lubricants, prompting conversations and interactions between otherwise strangers. (I’ve learned that it’s better to ask, “Can I say ‘hi’ to your dog?” rather than just, “Can I say ‘hi’?” One person thought I was asking permission to say ‘hi’ to him. That was awkward.)
While dog owners—particularly those who walk their dog—were most likely to meet neighbors, other companion animals also brought people together:
“The cat steals people’s socks from their houses, and then I return them. It's a good way to get to know people. They all think it is hilarious” (female, Perth).
“I was just visiting with one of them and we mentioned that we had a rabbit and they had a rabbit too. They became more than just acquaintances” (female, Portland).
“Back in the day when we used to have cats the cat used to sit on the top of the step outside and people would say hi because of the cat. Now we have two dogs and when we were walking our dogs there was actually a person looking for a play date for their dog so we got to know people like that” (female, Nashville).
So pets can bring people together, but what do these pet-facilitated relationships look like? Do they carry more depth than a “hi” or a head-nod (maybe better described as a chin thrust? Ok. Time to stop doing it; just got a weird glance in the library). This multinational study found that relationships formed through pets, particularly dogs, can have a bit more substance to them. About 42% of pet owners described receiving what psychologists call ‘social support’ from someone they’d met through their pet. Social support describes exchanges that surpass the surface, things like sharing a concern, asking for information or advice, or borrowing something (maybe sugar, who knows).
From a read of the paper—which you can do, it’s open access on PLoS ONE—the researchers clearly don’t want you to breeze past their findings. While sharing a concern or asking to borrow something might seem whatever in the scheme of things, socially supportive networks are valuable. The researchers explain: there is “growing evidence for social isolation as a risk factor for mental health” issues, and, “conversely, friendships and social support as protective factors for individual and community well-being.”
Can pets protect against social isolation and be a conduit for getting to know people and receiving social support? Seems like the possibility is there. Of course, this is not going to be everyone’s experience—research is not about validating individual experiences—but the potential of pets to bring people together is not to be ignored.
Wood L, Martin K, Christian H, Nathan A, Lauritsen C, Houghton S, et al. (2015) The Pet Factor - Companion Animals as a Conduit for Getting to Know People, Friendship Formation and Social Support. PLoS ONE 10(4): e0122085. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0122085