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Pets Help Us to Build Communities One Friend at a Time

Even indoor pets help us get to know other people, according to new research in four cities across the U.S. and Australia.
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(Photo: *- mika -*/Flickr)

(Photo: *- mika -*/Flickr)

It’s easy to see how people who regularly walk their dog can get to know others. They might strike up friendly conversations about dogs, or learn to avoid certain people because of the way their off-leash dog charges up with unwanted “friendly” advances. It’s less obvious for people who don’t walk their dogs, or who have pets that are always indoors. But a new study by researchers at the University of Western Australia and Harvard University finds that pets are an important way of getting to know and make friends with other people.

“There is growing evidence that social isolation, loneliness, and lack of social support are common issues in today's cities and suburbs, and these can take a negative toll on our health and well-being," writes lead author Lisa Wood in an email. "Companion animals can, however, be an antidote to this, as they often create opportunities for us to meet other people. Animals can break the ice between strangers and are a great social leveler, as people of all ages and races can feel that they have something in common.”

“Whilst it might just start with saying hello to someone with a companion animal, our research indicates that this often leads to friendships and can strengthen sense of community," Wood continues. "Pets can introduce us to people we wouldn't have met otherwise, and this broadens our networks of social support. Such social connectedness and social support is good for our health as individuals and as a community.”

"The dogs insist on meeting and greeting, and their humans follow suit. It has caused me to be more social than is my inclination."

The most common ways of getting to know other people include being neighbors and via local streets/parks. But for pet owners, their pet is the third most common way in San Diego, Nashville, and Perth, and the fourth most common in Portland, according to Wood's study. (It’s important to note this question was asked before any questions about pets, so these responses were not primed by the researchers.)

Among the 59 percent of people who had a pet, about half said they had got to know someone through their pet. And, compared to other pet owners, those with dogs were five times more likely to have met someone this way.

"Lots of folks in this neighborhood own and walk dogs," one respondent said. "The dogs insist on meeting and greeting, and their humans follow suit. It has caused me to be more social than is my inclination."

But some of the ways in which pets facilitated getting to know people are surprising. One person said,for example: “Their children are interested in seeing the snake and we never let children come in without parent permission. So before anyone can see the snake or handle the snake we need to have met the parents and had it okayed with them.”

A cat owner had an interesting situation with socks: “The cat steals people’s socks from their houses, and then I return them. It’s a good way to get to know people. They all think it’s hilarious.”

Forty-two percent of pet owners had received some kind of social support—such as emotional support or borrowing an item—from someone they met via their pet. Again, this was more likely for dog owners. This is an important finding because social support from other people has important psychological and physical benefits. While previous research shows that animals themselves can provide social support, this study found that animals play a role in facilitating social support from other people.

One of the ways even indoor pets can help to build friendship is through the discovery of common interests. And learning that someone else has an animal can show they are similar to us, in much the same way people can bond over music or gardening.

Nearly 2,700 people took part in the survey in Perth in Australia and San Diego, Portland, and Nashville in the United States. The American cities were chosen for their similarities to Perth in terms of climate, geography, density, and housing type. Because summer is a time when people are more often out-and-about with their pets, the survey was conducted in autumn, namely April-June for Perth and September-December in the U.S.

Dogs were the most common pet, then cats, fish, and birds.

Some of the great things about this study are its large sample size, the design of the questionnaire, and the mixed-method approach that included the chance for people to share personal experiences. Since the cities were chosen for their similarity, it will be interesting to see if these results are also found in other locations, both rural and urban.

The results suggest that urban planners, local councils, and community organizations should take into account the role of pets in building community.