Relationships with our animals not so simple

Human-animal relationships are much more complex than throwing a ball or pouring kibble into a bowl. Two scientists dissected the history of domestication and psychological relationships with pets, as part of a conference organized Wednesday by the Cœur des sciences of the University of Quebec in Montreal (UQAM). Selected pieces.

Valérie Chansigaud, historian of science and the environment, first went back in time to expose the complexity of the phenomenon of domestication, starting from its genesis, that of the dog, descendant of the gray wolf who became man’s official best friend. for some 25,000 years. If the process engendered profound organic and genetic transformations in animals (curvature of the tail, depigmentation, reduced ears and fangs, among others), it also left its mark in human social organizations: the second wave of domestication, that large herbivores (sheep, goats, cows, pigs), “has been accompanied by a radical transformation of societies, which have become more and more hierarchical, unequal”, points Mme Chansigaud. The herds have become signs of wealth: “It is probably the birth of the very first form of capitalism”, specifies the historian.

But to come back to our sheep (or rather, our small domestic animals), let us note this other interesting fact: if the dog is today the mammal which presents the greatest physical disparities between its different races, consequences of its domestication and of the selection process, this dimorphism is much more limited in cats. “This reflects the doubt that many specialists have in saying that the cat is really domesticated. For them, we are in a gray area, ”she emphasizes. The owners of kitties who superbly ignore any injunction from their master were surely already quite convinced …

Little beast = well-being?

Social psychologist and professor in the psychology department at UQAM, Catherine Amiot has also scrutinized certain tools in her discipline to decipher human-animal relationships. In a very detailed presentation, she notably reported how three ways of identifying with animals, namely the feeling of solidarity with them, that of human-animal similarity and that of “animal pride” (recognizing that we are animals and valuing this membership), were used as parameters to outline trends; for example, greater solidarity with animals is associated with a lower propensity for social dominance or speciesism.

However, another point of the presentation particularly caught our attention: Catherine Amiot wished to bring nuances on the question of the well-being offered by domestic animals in our homes, especially in times of pandemic. Many media forums have indeed relayed the benefits and comfort provided by our little animals. Nevertheless, the psychology professor points to other studies, carried out during the epidemic, going against the grain of these assertions, posing that pets can also cause stress or worry in these times of crisis.

A large study conducted by Ratschen and his colleagues among around 6,000 people showed that 70% of pet owners reported having a concern about their pet.

Catherine Amiot, psychologist

In Quebec, there are no shortage of examples: veterinary visits have become more complex (the province was already suffering from a staff shortage) and food stocks have experienced their share of failures.

Read Elena Ratschen’s study

In fact, the various studies carried out on the subject, even before 2020, prove to be contradictory: some associate the presence of domestic animals with psychological well-being, some conclude not to have found any connection there, while of others point to reduced well-being in certain areas among pet owners.

But for the psychologist, this link must be qualified by parameters (“moderators”), such as age – children and the elderly would benefit more from pitou et kitty – or the available resources. “A very sick person is not necessarily going to benefit from it, if it represents a burden which is added to other worries”, illustrates Mme Amiot. Researchers have also looked at the compatibility of the respective personalities of the animal and its owner: the larger it is, the more benefits we derive from it.

And the well-being of our companions? We are studying it too! Dogs belonging to singles would have the best quality of life, as well as those belonging to people who have made a lot of emotional bonds with those around them. “This suggests that these dogs were integrated into a larger social network, without playing a compensatory role in relation to missing human links”, concludes the psychologist.

Watch the full conference

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