Man’s best friend: Why do we love petting animals so much? by Georgia Sermon

Human-animal bonds such as Scooby and Shaggy, Harry Potter and Hedwig and even Daenerys and her dragons, is something that a small part of us all aspire to have. The perceived closeness between man and animal is incredibly unique and has been explored in great depth. It’s well known that most people love petting animals and the growing trend in cat cafes and stress busting sessions with dogs seems to be a pretty good representation of this, but what are the reasons behind our love of cute things?

When we see something cute, whether that be a human baby or a fuzzy duckling, brain activity is stimulated in areas linked to emotion, reward and pleasure. This increases levels of chemical messengers (known as neurotransmitters) such as dopamine and oxytocin. These are our ‘happy hormones’ and they provoke an enjoyable feeling which our brain remembers and wants to experience again. This response to a cute stimulus makes sense; it motivates us to care for the animal, a response which is ingrained in the caring and parenting of our own babies. As a result, we like to pet animals and nurture them as it makes us feel better.

One way in which professionals can exploit this response in our brains is by using animals in therapeutic scenarios. For example, bringing dogs to senior care homes or having animals present in counselling and therapy sessions are both widely used methods of supporting individuals with psychological distress.

In an experiment carried out by Nicholas Guéguen and Serge Ciccotti, it was found that pedestrians were more accommodating and compliant when approached for help by a stranger with a dog compared to a stranger without a dog. They concluded that the ownership of a dog is a social factor that influences the ‘friendliness’ of a person. Just like other social factors that influence behavioural responses, such as having softer facial features, being associated with certain breeds of dog makes other people perceive you more positively and this therefore could have caused the pedestrians to be more compassionate towards the stranger with the dog.

This links with something that John Bradshaw from the University of Bristol calls the ‘trustworthiness effect’ which helps explain why using animals in the therapeutic field can be beneficial. In the eyes of others, the person with the animal is seen as more approachable and can help to ease nervousness in individuals, making the therapy more effective. But this is only truly beneficial when the animal is behaving properly, according to Bradshaw. Furthermore, many research professionals question the value of human-animal interaction (HAI) completely.

Conflicting causation and correlation in design of experiments is a key issue in this field. Criticism of HAI states that a lack of control experiments and small sample groups adds doubt to conclusions that the animal itself can help with psychological distress. Many experiments look at immediate short-term effects on the individual and often don’t account for other environmental factors such as the interaction with the animal’s handler. This therefore makes some evidence less reliable as improvements in individuals may not solely be due to the animal alone but other influences and responses may differ even based on the species of animal. Not to mention other aspects of owning pets including veterinary bills and commitment pressures that can all cause added stress to owners.

Despite all this, animal-lovers continue to thrive with 45% of UK households in 2018 owning some sort of animal, according to Statista. So why do we still keep our furry friends around? If you ask animal-owners many will agree that their pets provide company and, dog owners especially, argue that their responsibility to their pooch encourages more outdoor activity, which undoubtedly has added health benefits.

A more scientific explanation for our companionship with animals may be in the discovery of a branch of sensory cells in hair follicles. Scientists suspect that these cells evolved to promote social interactions in the animal kingdom - humans included - to reap the benefits of grooming within social circles. These cells are only stimulated by stroking i.e. not pinching or poking or other contact. Activation of these sensory cells in different places of the lab also produced a preference for the area that they were stimulated in. This suggests that these sensory cells produced a pleasant response for the animal and the human involved. Put simply, we like petting our animals and our animals like to be petted.

So next time you’re in need of some animal comfort, it might well be worth heading to the park to get your daily fix of sensory cell stimulation!


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