There’s a fun piece in The New York Times on The Healing Power of Dogs that discusses a wide range of health effects linked to pet ownership. The article briefly discusses a range of research that has linked pet ownership to health benefits. For example:
One Japanese study found pet owners made 30 percent fewer visits to doctors. A Melbourne study of 6,000 people showed that owners of dogs and other pets had lower cholesterol, blood pressure and heart attack risk compared with people who didn’t have pets. Obviously, the better health of pet owners could be explained by a variety of factors, but many experts believe companion animals improve health at least in part by lowering stress.
This research is fascinating in its own right, especially for a person who’s only recently started to live around animals… a lot of animals (at last count, 8 horses, 1 horse expecting a foal, 2 cats, 2 dogs, innumerable wild birds, kangaroos and wallabies all wandering onto the property). I’ve noticed a huge difference in my health and mood since the change, but it’s hard to separate the effects of having Basil and Roxy (the dogs), Glitz and Glam (the cats), or the bigger monkeys around (the horses). But the research discussed also touches on two issues that I think are of particular importance to those of us interested in neuroanthropology and the biology-culture interface.
The first is that animals often serve as sensory ‘prostheses’ for humans, using their senses to make humans more aware of their environment. I’m drawing the term ‘prosthesis’ from the work of Allen Feldman (1994) on the way that video was used in the Rodney King trial to extend human perceptual abilities (and, in the end, undermine the obvious fact that King had been beaten unlawfully), but my interpretation of the concept probably owes a fair bit to thinking about cyborgs in the work of Donna Haraway (1990). The difference with Haraway, of course, is that the ‘prostheses’ to the human body, in this case, are organic rather than technological.
In fact, animals have a long history of acting as sensory symbiots with humans, as people look to the behaviour of animals in a range of areas. I had an exchange of email with Tim Ingold about this, after he told me that he was interested in the perception of weather. I was reminded that, since moving to the country and taking up residence with all these animals, I had come to perceive the weather, in part, through the actions of animals. When the cows sat down in the fields, or the black cockatoos flew overhead, we could expect rain. When the border collie got nervous and wanted to come inside, he could hear distant thunder. When the dogs got up tight at night, we wonder what they smell or hear that we can’t. Of course, things like seeing-eye dogs and drug-sniffing dogs are refined versions of this, but I suspect that they are much more widespread than an urban population like anthropologists might predict. A young post-doc applied for a grant with me as the sponsor at Macquarie to look at these relations, and I found her work fascinating. She had looked at animals among herders and was proposing to work on dogs in Aboriginal communities — really intriguing stuff about inter-species relationships. Our colleague Agustín also discussed these sorts of inter-species relationships recently at the AAAs, christening the ‘Audrey effect’ after his own dog.
The ability of animals to detect diseases has a range of intriguing implications, including the possibility that our perceptions of our own health might pass through another individual, even an individual of another species. That is, I may turn to a dog to detect disease in my own body because my body is emitting a smell that the animal can detect. Both my body’s boundary is porous (I give off the smell), and the animal’s condition reveals its perceptions, so it’s perceptions are externally legible.
So domestic animal sensory symbiosis points to a way in which we draw on the perceptions of others, including other species, to get information from the environment. But The New York Times story also suggests that our health has contributing factors from other individuals, including members of other species. These pet-effects on health provide another challenge to assumptions that the human body is a closed system. Although we might call the effects of animals on health largely ‘psychological,’ they are obviously physiological in a very material sense, leading to measurable differences in very basic measures of baseline health.
A dynamic systems approach to human health would have to include a fairly large number of non-human organisms that live in complex relationships with us, not only our pets (who influence our health but also depend on us for theirs as well), but also the various organisms that live in our built environments, in the ecosystems we modify, and even within our bodies, dependent upon the types of foods we provide them, just as we depend upon them to derive everything we need for health. In other words, pets are the tip of a fairly large symbiotic iceberg of organisms that live in and on us, and that affect our health for better or worse.
Okay, so I had a chance to rethink this while floating around in the pool (yes, I’m rubbing in the fact that I live in the Southern Hemisphere), and I’m increasingly unhappy with how few examples I gave of the relations between humans and other species. After all, I brought up horses and then didn’t discuss the labor that animals do (and never mind our dependence on them for food — yes, even you, vegans, as without animals, plants wouldn’t get pollinated and wastes wouldn’t get broken down). And I live just over the escarpment from Robertson, where the movie Babe was filmed — and I live with a border collie who tries to ‘herd’ everything, from horses to ride-on mowers — and I didn’t mention the important working animals out there herding sheep, fetching downed game, tracking food, and the like.
But the other thing that struck me as I was floating around is the degree to which the health effects discussed in the NYT article are reciprocal. We recently had an outbreak of equine influenza here in Australia, and it drove home how precarious the health of domesticated animals can be. For example, just as we have high body fat percentages in relation to wild animals, so do our pets and domesticated animals, but domestic animals often outlive their wild counterparts by significant margins. And it would be interesting to note whether or not domesticated animals also had significantly different profiles for cause of mortality, such as less stress-related diseases. Although Daniel and I have discussed Robert Sapolsky’s book, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, I still wonder if the potential disease profile of our over-weight, pampered Labrador might be significantly different than an animal that had to work a little harder for a feed than just wagging her tail. Granted, humans have more complex emotional lives, but some of the mechanisms that lead to health problems are very old evolutionarily and shared among a wide range of species. Most hormones, for example, are chemically identical in humans and other mammals. So, even though I endorse what Sapolsky argues, is it also possible that we’re having positive health benefits on our pets?
Feldman, Allen. 1994. From Desert Storm to Rodney King via ex-Yugoslavia: On Cultural Anaesthesia. In The Senses Still: Perception and Memory as Material Culture in Modernity. C. Nadia Seremetakis, ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Haraway, Donna. 1990. Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge.
Sapolsky, Robert. 2004. Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. Third Edition. Holt Paperbacks.