Why do some people care about animals while others don’t

Around half the households include a pet. Of those, approximately 10m are dogs, and another 10m are cats. Pets are expensive and take up a lot of time. They also bring few material benefits. The 2008 financial crisis did not affect the spending on pets at all. This suggests that pets are an important part of most families and aren’t a luxury.

Nevertheless, some people love pets, while others are not interested. Why is that? Our desire to be with animals has been around for thousands of years and played a major role in our evolution. If this is the case, genetics could explain why some people don’t love animals.

Micro pigs with skirts. PanyaStudio/Shutterstock.com

What is the health question?

Recent times have seen a lot of attention devoted to the idea that owning a dog or cat can improve the health of the owner in many ways. This includes reducing heart disease risk, preventing loneliness, and alleviating symptoms of dementia and depression.

These claims have two major problems, as I explain. There are many studies that suggest that pets do not have a negative effect on your health. Second, pet owners do not live longer than people who never considered having an animal around the house. This is contrary to the claims made. Even if these health benefits were true, they would only be applicable to modern urbanites and not their hunter/gatherer forefathers. Therefore, they can’t be considered the reason we started keeping pets.

Illustration of a Japanese Cat Cemetery. Penguin, Author provided

It’s easy to mistakenly think that the urge to keep animals in our homes is a universal human trait. However, not all societies are pet-friendly. Many people in the West have no affinity towards animals.

Recent research suggests that the pet-keeping habit is also genetic. Some people are predisposed to be drawn to animals regardless of their background.

The genes that encourage pet-keeping are unique to humans. However, they are not universal. This suggests that some societies and individuals, but not all, thrived in the past due to their intuitive relationship with animals.

Future pet lovers. Conrado/Shutterstock.com


DNA analysis of domesticated animals shows that they separated from their wild counterparts between 15,000 and 5000 years ago during the Neolithic and Late Palaeolithic periods. This was when we began breeding livestock. It is difficult to imagine how we could have achieved this if the first dogs, cats, cattle, and pigs were treated like commodities.

In this case, the technology available to stop unwanted interbreeding between domestic and wild animals would have been insufficient to prevent the diluted genes of “tameness.” This would have slowed down or reversed the process of domestication. Periods of famine may have also encouraged the killing of breeding stock and wiped out “tame” genes entirely.

If these early domesticated animals were treated as pets by humans, they would have been able to be kept in human homes and prevented from having their way. They would also have had a special social status like some hunter-gatherer pet dogs, which would have made it difficult for them to be eaten as food. These semi-domesticated creatures would have evolved away from the wild ways of their ancestors and become the flexible beasts that we know today.

The pug is a far cry from its ancestors. Penguin, Author provided

Those early farmers would have carried the same genes that today make some people predisposed to adopt their first dog or cat. People who had empathy for animals and a good understanding of animal husbandry would have thrived in groups. Those without would still have to hunt to get meat. Why don’t all people feel the same? At some point, the alternative strategy of stealing domesticated animals or enslaving human carers has become viable.

There is one final twist in this tale: Recent studies show that caring for animals goes hand-in-hand with concern for nature. People can be divided roughly into two groups: those who have little affection for animals and the environment or those who enjoy both. Pet-keeping is one of the few outlets available in modern urban society.

Pets can help us reconnect with nature, the source of our evolution.

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