Animal Instinct: Our Ever-Growing Bond With Pets During Isolation

May 20, 2020

Credit CC0 Public Domain

Animal shelters across the nation reported an immediate surge in pet adoptions as Americans withdrew to their homes due to COVID-19. The term "pandemic puppies" became a quick catchphrase. But our relationships with our pets runs much deeper than any particular moment in history — no matter how dire.

Anthropologist Dr. Shelly Volsche, who studies animal/human behavior at Boise State University, visited with Morning Edition host George Prentice to talk about her most recent research and how, for so many of us, coping with a pandemic has been much easier with a four-legged friend.

“They are, in fact, aware that they're gravitating toward their pets as a way to mitigate and cope with anxiety and isolation.”

Read the full transcript below:

GEORGE PRENTICE: It's Morning Edition on Boise State Public Radio News. Good morning. I'm George Prentice. Our relationships with our pets are, well, quite often boundless, and they're such an integral part of our lives, they're difficult to describe, but this morning, let's spend some time with someone who does a lot more than describe those relationships. In fact, she is an anthropologist, Dr. Shelley Volsche studies human-animal interaction. And lately she's been looking at the relationship between humans and pets during social isolation, and she joins us live this morning via Zoom. Dr. Volsche, good morning.

DR. SHELLY VOLSCHE: Good morning. Thank you for having me.

PRENTICE: You bet. I thought it would be appropriate up top, maybe if you could speak a bit about our relationships, if we can, maybe with dogs, our relationships with dogs, and how they have evolved over the years.

VOLSCHE: Well, the thing about our relationship with dogs is we often start thinking about times of enlightenment and Victorian era when dogs had already started to enter our homes and our hearth, they were our hunting partners, and they were our guard dogs on our homesteads and our properties, and elite classes in particular, were starting to get into really categorizing specific breeds, and moving into that kind of hobbyist realm.

But our relationship with dogs goes back deeper than that. We're talking millennia of co-evolution. And I think it's one of the reasons that dog seems to be a pet that we mostly gravitate towards, especially when we're thinking about family members. And that's not to leave out the cat people.

I always want to preface that, so don't get a lot of angry tweets from cat people, because they've also been along for quite a few thousand years, but dog is the first animal that we domesticated, and they spent a lot of time cooperating with us, and hunting with us, and living in our camps, and serving as sentinels. And so it makes sense to me then, when we think about industrial revolution and transitions into urban environments and transitions to the growth of middle classes, where there is additional income and things like that, that we start to see animals becoming more of our, an extension of our moral world. They become part of our family.

And since the 2000s in particular, I started to really notice and begin tracking this shift where they're no longer just pets. They're no longer just animals in our home, but our dogs in particular are really becoming individuals whom we parent. And I say it that way because I know pet parenting as a term has become very trendy. And so some people will claim the identity pet parent without necessarily being what we would consider parents in anthropology. But there are definitely individuals who either don't have children, or only have one child or, various other things that come into play where that dog has begun to serve that role of an individual with whom we negotiate a relationship, it's not just us extending ourselves onto them anymore. We're thinking about their individual needs. We're thinking about their individual personalities, and desires, and spending a lot of money, a lot of time, and a lot of emotional energy on them, particularly in comparison to even those Victorian counterparts where they were a hobby.

PRENTICE: So if we can… I follow you on Twitter.

VOLSCHE: Thank you.

PRENTICE: And what attracted my attention was your requests to the public to participate in a research study by faculty at Boise State. So what can you tell me about what you're asking, and what you're studying?

VOLSCHE: So what we're looking at is the differences in our relationships with our family, and family really kind of encouching anyone who happens to be living in the home with us. Are we tripping over children? Are we currently finding ourselves working full time from home, while also parenting a child and teaching a child? Are we living alone? Are we potentially lonely? Are we only with a partner, who we're used to being apart for 10 hours a day, and now we're on top of each other trying to do Zoom calls without interfering in each other's literal business. But then also looking at how is the relationship with our pets being impacted? So there's actually two components of the survey where it's asking the same set of questions about our family, and the same set of questions about our pets. So our human families and our pets. And really looking at where are we inserting ourselves, are we finding that we're mitigating the relationships, the stressors with our family and children through time with our pets? Are we finding that our pets are actually becoming part of the inhibitors to being able to feel like we're giving to our family properly? How are these things playing out?

And that's really what that particular survey is looking at. We just closed the survey yesterday, and I've started crunching some of the data to get a feel, and it was really interesting to see just in a preliminary, how many people were either living alone, and really highlighting the importance of their pets in helping them feel socially connected, or just identifying that they are in fact aware that they're gravitating toward their pets as a way to mitigate and cope with anxiety and isolation.

PRENTICE: And you must know, as well as anyone, that it's our understanding that many of the shelters are now empty. So there are a lot of new relationships.

VOLSCHE: There are a lot of new relationships, to the extent that we've often, I've talked to the few of my colleagues, including Sarah [inaudible 00:05:41] out at Hunter College in New York, because she was watching a lot of this happening. And some of our concern was, a lot of it is foster.

We know from the research that once you adopt an animal, or once you foster an animal, you tend to in love with it, if it works within your family, and you become what we call a foster fail, which means you don't foster anymore, you're keeping them. And then what does that potentially leading to after we go back to our new normal, after we start leaving the hallway of the home again.

PRENTICE: So let's talk about that new normal in a post pandemic world. I'm assuming that many of us will experience, and our pets will experience, an entirely new level of separation anxiety once we do start leaving our pets alone again.

VOLSCHE:  Yeah. Yeah. I think that the human side of it, we're going to have that almost panicky, if you think about a parent leaving their child at daycare for the first time, that sense of, "Oh, I hope that they're going to be okay while I'm gone. I hope that nothing happens to them while I'm gone.", especially because we're going to all be very sensitive to the potential for injury, the potential for disease, that kind of thing. So the human side is going to definitely struggle for some of us to kind of feel comfortable leaving, and particularly dogs home.

Then from the dog's side, if they get accustomed to spending all this time with us, especially a new animal who hasn't had any sort of alone trainings, what the dog trainers call it, right? There's the potential for this anxiety to come up because now I'm suddenly alone. And it might be that I'm alone for eight hour work day, plus if you go out to dinner with friends, or go out to the bar, another two or three hours at night, and remembering that we've connected, we've built this very, I mean, from a co-evolutionary perspective, it's normal for us to spend a lot of time and space together. And so when you start to pull that apart to go back to the functions of human society, that's going to impact both sides.

PRENTICE: Can I assume that you have a pet?

VOLSCHE: I do. She's actually sleeping under my feet right now.

PRENTICE: Okay. Well, introduce us. What's her name?

VOLSCHE: Her name is Lucy.

She is about a 12 and a half year old pug. Her nicknames are things like Dame Judi Dench and the devourer of snacks. We have a whole list of very like Danarys type, Game of Thrones type names for her.

PRENTICE: Oh my goodness. And does she have the appropriate temperament for that?

VOLSCHE: Oh, she really does. She's a sass. When people say that dogs don't talk back, I have like three different recordings of her. She has this thing where she stomps her feet, and like silently barks at you because the barking or the scratching at the door or the sitting by the food dish hasn't worked. And so she's definitely got her ways of communicating. And because we've spent time with her, we've learned what her language is for certain requests and vice versa. So like I was saying before, it's about that negotiating the relationship. It's no longer putting her in a kennel until I'm ready to do something with her.

PRENTICE: Well, you may want to consider a tiny Oscar instead of raw hide or a bone. She sounds wonderful.

VOLSCHE: She's full of sass.

PRENTICE: Full of sass. Dr. Shelley Volsche studies human-animal interaction at Boise State, and lately she's looking at the relationship between humans and pets during social isolation. Dr. Volsche, stay healthy, stay well, thank you so much.

VOLSCHE: Thank you.

Find reporter George Prentice on Twitter @georgepren

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