Anthrozoology: Q&A with Dr Hal Herzog

Dr Hal Herzog

Dr Hal Herzog is Emeritus Professor of Psychology at Western Carolina University where he investigates and writes about the ways people think about and relate to other species. Dr Herzog is regarded as one of the world’s leading experts on human-animal relations.

WHAT IS ANTHROZOOLOGY?

Anthrozoology is the study of human-animal interaction. An “anthrozoologist” is how most people that are doing this kind of research would describe themselves. In recent years, it has grown as people in more mainstream areas like psychology, sociology, medicine and epidemiology are increasingly taking the research on. This is great news as they come with really interesting research methods and methodological skills. As a child I was fascinated by reptiles, and animals generally, which naturally lead me into a life of studying them. Then as an academic, I started to think more and more about the ethics and moral dilemmas associated with keeping pets. Eventually, that got me to change my research from the study of animal behaviour to the study of our behaviour and our attitudes towards animals.

CAN YOU PROVIDE SOME HISTORY OF ANTHROZOOLOGY?

Perhaps the most seminal paper was a paper by Erika Friedmann in 1980 (which is referenced several times in this journal). She was a doctoral student working on the impact of social factors on survival from heart attacks. What she found was surprising. Pet owners had four times the survival rate than that of non-pet owners. That really kicked the whole field of anthrozoology off. Some studies have replicated those findings but other studies have not. Of course, there have also been important studies since. Karen Allen at University of Buffalo, for example, showed that interacting with a pet did have short-term cardiovascular effects including decreasing cortisol levels, changes in heart rate and blood pressure. However, it was only when I was writing my book that I started encountering all these counterfactual data and studies. And it seems like in recent years we’re getting more of these studies that cast doubt on the idea that owning pets has health benefits, but it is difficult to get conclusive answers either way due to socio-economic factors and small sample sizes. I did not originally come into this idea as a sceptic. Indeed, I became a sceptic reluctantly, because I’m a pet lover myself.

EVERYONE YOU SPEAK TO REALLY FONDLY REMEMBERS THEIR CHILDHOOD PETS AND I WAS WONDERING IF YOU THINK THAT’S WHY PEOPLE GENERALLY THINK PETS ARE GOOD FOR CHILDREN AND THEIR MENTAL HEALTH?

Our intuition is definitely that pets are good for children’s mental health. This idea dates back to the late 19th century when the belief spread that for American boys, the presence of pets would have a calming, taming effect on them and help them to be socialised. But the idea that pets provide very serious benefits to the health and happiness of people, including kids, really began to take off about 20 years ago. Since then there’s been this spectacular growth in the idea that dogs made good therapists and that pet owners are healthier and happier than non-pet owners.

YOU DON’T AGREE?

I do not. There’s a mismatch between what the public thinks the research says about the impact of pets on health and happiness and what the research actually says. That’s the crux of the matter. I think most of my colleagues in the field agree with me on this. Let me give a couple of examples. I recently took a deep dive into research on pets and loneliness. I located 21 empirical studies published in peer- reviewed journals which examined whether getting a pet will make you less lonely. Only six of these studies actually found that pet owners were less lonely. Similarly, I found 31 studies in which depression levels of pet owners were compared to those of non-pet owners. Only five found the pet owners were less depressed. Even I was shocked by this. I found the same pattern with claims about pets and obesity. One of the claims made by the media is that dog walking is strongly associated with lower levels of obesity, so if you get a dog you will lose weight. That is not true. It might be true in terms of increased physical activity for some but, the majority of studies to date have not found that there’s any connection between pet ownership and obesity, and at least one study has shown pet owners are even more likely to be obese.

BUT IN 2017, A GROUP OF STATISTICIANS FROM THE RAND CORPORATION DID A PROJECT TO DEMONSTRATE THE POSITIVE IMPACT OF COMPANION ANIMALS ON CHILD DEVELOPMENT USING THE CALIFORNIA HEALTH INTERVIEW SURVEY AS DATA. IT FOUND THAT CHILDREN RAISED IN FAMILIES WITH PETS HAVE BETTER GENERAL HEALTH, THEY’RE MORE OBEDIENT, MORE PHYSICALLY ACTIVE, LESS MOODY, HAD FEWER BEHAVIOURAL AND LEARNING PROBLEMS. WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT THAT?

They did find those things but they also found that once you include the socioeconomic differences, the kids with pets are more likely to come from wealthier intact families. They’re more likely to live in homes where the parents actually own the home, as opposed to renting or living in a trailer.They’re more likely to be white, in a country in which there are great racial and socioeconomic disparities in health coverage.They are also more likely to have healthier parents. So, this relationship between wealth and health is one of many factors that are associated with better health and happiness. In the grand scheme of things, pet ownership makes a relatively small difference in how kids turn out; although, it may play a big role in some kids’ lives.

WHAT DO YOU THINK EXPLAINS THE MISMATCH BETWEEN THE RESEARCH TO DATE AND OUR INTUITION THAT PETS ARE GENERALLY GOOD FOR YOUR WELL- BEING?

An idea by Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Prize winning psychologist, called the ‘availability heuristic’. The availability heuristic says that when we think about a problem, we shortcut to the things that come to mind first. In this particular case it’s down to media coverage.The media has really pushed this idea that pet owners are better off than non-pet owners. I recently turned to Google to examine media stories related to the pet effect. Using the Google News search engine, I located 81 news items on the pet effect between 2010 and 2020. I searched using the phrase “the impact of pets on human health and happiness”. The articles fell into three categories – the good news, the bad news and the balanced news. 70% of the articles fell into the feel-good category. The media and the pet products industry has really pushed this idea that pet ownership will save money on your medical bills and make you happier. And this, of course, is what people want to hear based on our own personal experiences with pets.

WHAT ABOUT YOUR OWN EXPERIENCE WITH PETS?

When I tell my wife I have found yet another article which did not show the expected findings around children’s wellbeing and pets she says: “Well, I don’t believe you. I think you’re wrong because I know from our experience with our own kids…”. To me, what’s really fascinating is the mismatch between our personal experiences and what the research currently says. On the one hand, we have this body of research, most of which does not show these benefits, but then we have our personal experience, which often conflicts with that.There’s a mismatch between what the public believes, what the research shows and our personal experience.

FINALLY, HOW WOULD YOU SUMMARISE WHAT OUR RELATIONSHIP WITH ANIMALS CAN TELL US ABOUT HUMAN PSYCHOLOGY?

I think it tells us a couple things. This gets to Daniel Kahneman’s work on thinking fast and thinking slow. It’s that our interactions with animals; the way we think about animals is very complicated. And it’s complex, in part because it’s moderated by two different systems and one of these is intuitive: it’s fast and it’s unconscious. The other is more thoughtful: it’s cognitive, it’s slower. Especially when we think about moral issues associated with animals, often our thinking, our moral judgments and our behaviour are more motivated by gut level decision making or the ‘fast part’, as Daniel Kahneman puts it. Then there is the slow rational part. As the psychologist Jonathan Haidt argues, our moral lives are this uneasy relationship between our head and our heart. Often our emotions take over. It’s no wonder that we have this mismatch of factors affecting our judgments. I think this applies in all aspects of all facets of human thinking – especially moral thinking, not just to animals, but to other people as well. Animals can tell us a lot about the human condition.