Have you ever thought of pets as a uniting force encouraging cooperation, compromise and a general feeling of reciprocity? This sounds like a grandiose concept but is a little more plausible when you see dog owners congregating at a dog park. Research shows that pets, and dogs, in particular, can, in fact, bring people and communities together.
What I am referring to is ‘social capital’, a complex concept defined simply as social relationships/interactions that foster collective beneficial outcomes. Social capital has been shown to be beneficial in a range of social, economic and political spheres, from social integration, cohesion, and general societal wellbeing, to the efficient running of modern economies and growth in the gross domestic product (GDP), through to public health and community governance.1
In a study spanning four cities on two continents, researchers from The University of Western Australia have found that pet ownership contributes significantly to social capital.2 Individuals from comparable communities in Perth (Australia), and Portland, Nashville and San Diego (USA) were surveyed on a number of social capital determinants, including general helpfulness, friendliness, trust, reciprocity and civic engagement of people in their community. The results showed that people with pets had more social capital than those without. Those with dogs had even greater social capital and those who walked their dogs had even more still (Diagram 1).
The authors suggest that their results reflect the idea that people with pets are deemed more trustworthy. And trust is a key driver of social capital. Previous observational studies have also shown that people with pets perceive others as more trustworthy.2
Physiologically, these perceptions could be the result of oxytocin production, which is known to increase feelings of trust. Dog owners experience increased levels of oxytocin when interacting with their pooches and the authors conject that the same response occurs when interacting with any companion animal (Diagram 2).
The positive effect of companion animals in other facets of human life has also been explored, with studies showing pets can help individuals with mental illness3 and autism4, and can also help develop social skills, self-esteem and curb loneliness in children.5
Collectively, this bank of research builds a strong case for more pet-friendly cities and societies. Given the growing trend towards high-density apartment living in Australia, now is the time for town planners and governments to develop strategies and policies to ensure our pets remain an integral part of our lives.
- Claridge T. Benefits and the importance of social capital www.socialcapitalresearch.com/literature/theory/benefits.html. Accessed 2 August 2017.
- Wood L, Martin K, Christian H et al. Social capital and pet ownership: a tale of four cities. SSM Population Health 2017;3:442–447.
- Brooks H, Rushton L, Walker S et al. Ontological security and connectivity provided by pets: a study in the self-management of the everyday lives of people diagnosed with a long-term mental health condition. BMC Psychiatry 2016;16:409.
- O'Haire ME, McKenzie SJ, Beck AM et al. Animals may act as social buffers: skin conductance arousal in children with autism spectrum disorder in a social context. Dev Psychobiol 2015;57:584–595.
- Purewal R, Christley R, Kordas K et al. Companion animals and child/adolescent development: a systematic review of the evidence. Int J Environ Res Public Health 2017;14:234.
Social capital increases significantly with pet ownership, with dog owners who walk their dogs having the highest capital.
Pet ownership may contribute to social capital by positively affecting feelings of trust.
This article appeared in the September 2017 issue of the Australian Veterinary Journal