Podcast transcript

Podcast transcript

Why do we need pets?

 Assoc Professor Pauleen Bennett

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Transcript

Russ Hoye

Hi, I'm Russ Hoye, the Director of La Trobe sport and the host of Sport Unpacked, a regular podcast series. You’re now listening to a podcast from La Trobe University.

Matt Smith

Hey everyone. I'm Matt Smith and this is a La Trobe University podcast, and my guest today is this person.

Pauleen Bennett

My name’s Pauleen Bennett. I'm an Associate Professor in the School of Psychological Science and my job is to run the regional operations of the school, so we teach across five campuses and I run the regional side of that and just keep everybody on track, make sure it’s all happening.

Matt Smith

That’s a big job.

Pauleen Bennett

It’s a big job, but it’s fun.

Matt Smith

It’s fun. That’s good. That’s always good.

Pauleen Bennett

Yes, it’s good fun and then I get to do a fair bit of teaching as well, and I also do research.

Matt Smith

But before we get to Pauleen, I'd like to introduce you to a special someone. This is Millie. I got her almost two months ago and she’s a short haired domestic cat. Her colour’s black and white. She’s really cute. She’s got a little pink nose, and as you can hear, she just loves affection. She’s a little bundle of energy but she has brought a big calm atmosphere to our house and it’s pretty clear for me there’s a big benefit to having a pet around. And that’s what Pauleen Bennett will be talking about today. She’s an anthrozoologist from the La Trobe University’s Bendigo campus. What’s an anthrozoologist I hear you ask?

Pauleen Bennett

So we work in a field we call anthrozoology and that’s really just a fancy way of saying, human animal. So anthro is human and zoo is animal, so we call ourselves anthrozoologists and in fact it’s a growing area worldwide. There’s quite a lot of people who are really interested in anthrozoology and there’s an international society for anthrozoologists and we run conferences every year and talk about human animal things, and it’s really a great area to work in.

Matt Smith

It strikes me as a word that would be newish.

Pauleen Bennett

It is newish, and it’s kind of weird because we’ve had companion animals in our lives forever and you know, the theory is that the companion animal’s particularly kind of turned us into who we are now. So the reason we are the species that we are is because of our relationships with animals, as we were evolving, and nobody’s really studied it very much, because they were all just there and they were just part of our lives, like our families. We’ve always had pets, we’ve always had animals in the back yard and we used to eat them, we used to use them for transport, all that kind of thing. But nobody’s really investigated the psychology side of it. So why do we do that? How does it work? All those sort of issues.

Matt Smith

I feel really inclined to show you photos of my cat. Do you get that a lot?

Pauleen Bennett

I get it all the time. And this is the thing ...

Matt Smith

Do you want to see my cat?

Pauleen Bennett

I do. I definitely want to see your cat.

Matt Smith

All right, I'll go and get my phone.

Pauleen Bennett

Cool.

Matt Smith

She’s worth seeing. This is Millie. Millie we got from the Lost Dogs’ Home and she is a year and a bit old.

Pauleen Bennett

Now, see how happy you are? This is the sort of photos I get all the time. The sort of photo that you’ve shown me, you’re really happy.

Matt Smith

Of course I'm happy. I'm holding a cat.

Pauleen Bennett

Exactly. So how ... and this is the weird thing. What is it about animals that makes people happier? And they do. So this is what the research tell us is, that people who have animals are happier, and people who interact with animals are happier, and we can make people happier by going and visiting nursing homes with a dog, or by taking a dog into hospitals with children who are sick.

Matt Smith

You’re a psychologist. Do you know what goes on in your mind when you’re around an animal that changes?

Pauleen Bennett

I do a little bit. So, if you stroke an animal, you get an oxytocin blast, in your brain, and that makes you feel good. So same as when we see little babies, we have this overwhelming urge to look after them and we feel better around them. They make us happy. So same sort of thing. The same brain chemicals that become active when we’re dealing with human infants become active when we’re dealing with dogs and cats and it works both ways. So the dogs also get an oxytocin hit from being stroked in a certain way and from engaging with us. But also I think, another thing which we’re sort of trying to get evidence for now, is one of the things that animals do is just distract us. So, where humans in general are so caught up in the numerous millions of little tiny concerns and worries that we have, and we have this little voice in our head going round and round all the time, worrying us about things, and when we’re with our animals we kind of forget that, and we concentrate on the animal and it brings us back to the present, so you know, if you’ve got a dog or a cat, they don’t really care what’s happening with the finances in the world. They don’t care that there’s been an earthquake in some remote part of the planet. All they really care about is, hey, today’s great. Give me a cuddle, take me for a walk.

Matt Smith

Give me food.

Pauleen Bennett

Give me food. Those sort of basic questions. And that sorts of helps I think to ground us, and remind us of what’s important in life.

Matt Smith

So do you see pets as a kind of therapy then? I noticed when I handed you my phone, you didn't say, look at Millie. Millie is beautiful. You’ve gone, look how happy you are? You went straight for what the emotion was on my face, holding that cat.

Pauleen Bennett

Millie was beautiful.

Matt Smith

Millie was, thank you.

Pauleen Bennett

I should make that clear. Yes. So I am really interested in how that affects people and why is it that nearly every office you walk into, has people’s pets on their desk? On their screen saver. On their telephone. We carry them with us everywhere. They’re really important to us psychologically, and that kind of makes no sense, because we put a lot of effort and a lot of caring and a lot of resources into looking after someone else’s babies. From an evolutionary perspective, why would we do that? And the only explanation is, we must get benefits out of it, or otherwise we’re just idiots. You know, we just get sucked into looking after someone else’s baby, because it’s cute and it turns on our nurturing instincts and I don’t think that’s true. I hope that’s not true because I have a lot of dogs.

Matt Smith

What benefit are we missing if we don’t have a pet? In Australia, we’re very much a pet society. A lot of people have pets. I think I read the statistic, 63% of households have pets.

Pauleen Bennett

I think it might be 67, but it’s up there somewhere.

Matt Smith

So it’s gone up. So, what happens in a society where it’s not as common to have pets? Can you notice a difference that you can put down to ...

Pauleen Bennett

I think you have to be a little bit careful because I don’t think it’s an either/or thing. So I don’t think not having a pet makes you a bad person, or makes you an unhappy person, or living in a society without pets makes that a bad society. But I do think having pets involved in things improves them. So I think it depends on your culture, it depends on your background. So people who have owned pets as kids are more likely to own them as adults. So you know, if you’ve never grown up with pets, it’s a foreign sort of idea to you. But I think what we miss is just that connection with a natural world. I think if you live in a city, in a little apartment and you never see trees and you never interact with animals, I think we can get so caught up in the human way of doing things, that we miss just being an animal, which is what we are, just enjoying the sunshine, enjoying the grass under our feet, enjoying cuddling another living soul, and I think all those things are way more important than we like to think they are.

Matt Smith

I'm thinking of, China had a no-pet policy for quite a while. When that kind of thing goes, do the pets move in?

Pauleen Bennett

Yes, so in China what happened was, when they said that you could start keeping pets again, a whole lot of particularly young adult females went out and got a pet and there was a study done investigating those people and yes, they had health benefits, they had psychological benefits from that introduction of the pet.

Matt Smith

Is that a suggestion that you relatively easily give, that people should own pets? That our lives should be more accommodating to pets? Do you feel inclined to say, go to a retirement home and make sure that there’s a cat there?

Pauleen Bennett

Yes and no. I'm also really conscious of the welfare of the animals. If you put a dog in a nursing home and you don’t walk it and you don’t take care of it, then it turns into a very fat, slobby dog which is not good for it, because everybody feeds it their afternoon tea biscuits because everybody wants to have the dog as their pet. There needs to be a staff member who takes responsibility for the dog and looks after it. Cats are a little bit better, so in a nursing home, they fit in better. But I think we need to be really careful of matching the animal with the situation, so there are some dogs and cats who are really good at living in enclosed areas, in small apartments and things like that. So in one of the hobby horses I have, is to make the animals fit better, so we should be breeding animals for the environment that we’ve got.

Matt Smith

Do you mean hobby horse literally ...

Pauleen Bennett

Literally. Yeah, that’s true. No, I don’t mean that literally. But I do think ... you know, one of the things I talk about when I give talks is getting animals that fit your environment. I think that’s absolutely important for you, to get benefits from it, and also for the animal. So if you have an animal that’s stressed out of its head because it’s in an environment it doesn’t belong in, you don’t get any health benefits out of it, you just get more stress.

Matt Smith

Are our cities animal friendly? Because our houses are getting smaller, we’re getting less time to say, walk a dog that needs active walking, and yet there’s still popular breeds, because people don’t always take the maintenance side of animals into account when they buy a cute little puppy. So are our cities animal-friendly?

Pauleen Bennett

I think no. But I think they could be. So I don’t think animals need lots of space. I live on 300 acres and if I'm home, my dogs are at the back door. They don’t want to use 300 acres. The only reason my dogs go for a walk is if I take them. So having a big back yard is not necessary for a dog to be happy, but giving it lots of time and attention is necessary for a dog to be happy. So I think if we could integrate them more into our leisure activities, if we could integrate them more into our workplaces, so that they weren’t left at home by themselves all day, I think things like that could make a big difference. So I think cities can be pet-friendly. I don’t necessarily think that they are at the moment but certainly there are planners and developers who are thinking through those sort of things. Because we know that if people live in communities where pets are welcome, they feel better, they feel happier, they feel safer. Even if they don’t own a pet, they like the fact that people are out and about walking with their animals and things like that.

Matt Smith

What about our workplaces? You see dogs at workplaces occasionally. Cats are a bit more independent and maybe you can’t take to work, but dogs especially. I even know at La Trobe, we get dogs in the office every now and again because somebody will bring a dog in. It’s maybe a bit more excitement than a dog can handle readily, but it also would have an effect on the work environment as well.

Pauleen Bennett

It seems to. The research that’s been done on that suggests that people are happier and more productive if they’ve got their pets with them at work. And it presents problems, because of course we might have two dogs that don’t like each other, or we might have somebody in the office that’s allergic to dogs. So there’s all sorts of logistical, practical issues to get around with that, but in general, people ask me whether we should have dogs in the office like it’s a new thing, but if you go back fifty years, everybody took their dogs to work, because people weren’t working in offices. They were travelling salesmen and all that, and they often had a little dog at their heels, and you know, every truck had a dog in it and it used to be pretty normal to have a dog with you wherever you went. Or mum stayed home and looked after the kids and had the dog with her all day. Not being with our dogs is unusual, rather than being with them, I think.

Matt Smith

Okay. Would you go as far as to call it a symbiotic relationship between humans and pets?

Pauleen Bennett

Yes, definitely. I think that if you go back through the evolutionary history of humans and dogs, they’ve been living together for an awful long time, and probably helped create each other, so they domesticated us just as much as we domesticated them. Other animals, not so much, but in different ways, also symbiotic. I can’t imagine living in a world that wasn’t full of animals. I don’t think we could survive. I think if we didn’t have animals around us to pollinate our vegetables, we wouldn’t survive. So it’s not just about us and them, they are us, we’re all one big happy family, or not so happy sometimes. One of the things I like to think about is, if we’re going to save the planet, which is what we should be doing, it’s about treating the natural environment and the animals in it, differently. And more respectfully, and appreciating how they can contribute to the richness of our lives.

Matt Smith

What’s an animal that you think should be seen more as a pet than what it is? I always liked the idea of getting a lemur, from Madagascar, even though it’s a wild animal, but they look like they could do with a hug.

Pauleen Bennett

Yeah, or a sloth, maybe.

Matt Smith

A sloth.

Pauleen Bennett

I think miniature goats.

Matt Smith

Miniature goats.

Pauleen Bennett

Yeah, that’s what I think. Miniature goats or rabbits, because I think ... I have goats. I've had goats, not miniatures, but I've had goats and they’re the most wonderful animals. They’ve got great personalities, they’re really engaging. Apart from that, they’re herbivorous so we can feed them lawn clippings rather than having to kill other animals to feed them. You know, they’re great fun. They don’t need as much attention as dogs and cats. I think miniature goats is the way to go.

Matt Smith

What size are we talking here?

Pauleen Bennett

Oh, maybe a foot, twelve inches. What’s that? Thirty centimetres. Not very big. Big enough to pick up and carry, but small enough to live in an apartment, and I think a goat probably could live in an apartment quite comfortably if we rearranged it accordingly.

Matt Smith

Yeah, a house goat.

Pauleen Bennett

I reckon. Maybe two, so they’ve got company. Two’s always better than one. Yeah, goats.

Matt Smith

That was Pauleen Bennett, a psychologist and anthrozoologist. You can send me an email at podcast@latrobe.edu.au. Thanks for listening and I hope you have a great week.

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