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A pet is not just an ordinary animal; it is an animal conceived, bought, and given a home for the joy of humans. For instance, a white pet mouse in a cage may delight a child, while at the same time unwanted mice running somewhere in the house are a nuisance. Popular pets are dogs, cats, small birds, hamsters, reptiles, fish, and rabbits. Pets can be considered a sociological phenomenon, particularly in places like the United States, where more than half of all households own at least one pet. There are more than 60 million pet dogs and nearly 70 million pet cats in the United States according to the American Veterinary Medical Association.
Pet ownership can contribute to human health and well-being. Researchers who studied the dynamics in a cat shelter to see how people fared in a place crowded with pets found that they seemed to be calmer. Many veterinarians and researchers have explored the healing effects of animal-assisted therapy (AAT) on various patient populations. They have also found that retired persons living with pets engage in more exercise and have more social relationships as a result of caring for their pets. Some species and breeds of animals are used to assist specific patient populations (such as the blind, the disabled, mentally ill individuals, AIDS patients, and children).
Another social phenomenon is pet loss. The mourning of an animal who was an everyday companion is quite difficult for some pet owners, and not just children. Strong feelings for their lost pets lead people to seek support groups or books to help them through the grief process. Some authors explore psychological dimensions, while other experts question the spiritual issues.
Businesses exploit the fact that people are responsive toward animals in marketing. An image of a dog, for example, can be very effective in marketing products that have little to do with animals, such as Hush Puppies shoes that bear a Basset Hound as a logo. Animals kept as pets lack freedom, but when properly cared for they gain shelter, regular meals, veterinary care, and protection. In the 21st century, pet owners face similar choices and issues for their companions as for themselves in terms of consumption, health, birth control, vaccines, organic food, and even homeopathic medical care.
There are many organizations dedicated to animal rights and the fight against cruelty toward animals, such as the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). Those who advocate animal rights are often vegetarians. As for cultural restrictions, there is a food taboo against eating cats and dogs in Western civilizations, but not in societies like China. Although no law prohibits it in the United States, very few people eat horse meat. These meals are quite popular in some countries, however, and the meats can be bought in supermarkets in Canada, France, and Japan.
In recent years, people have experimented with nontraditional pets and exotic (and dangerous) animals such as crocodiles, panthers, and boa constrictors. When owners of these exotic animals abandon them, they can introduce hazardous species to new environments, thus disrupting the ecological balance-an example is the thoughtless discarding of living turtles or piranhas in a lake.
- American Veterinary Medical Association, U.S. Pet Ownership Statistics, www.avma.org;
- The Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement, www.aplb.org;
- Leslie Irvine, “Pampered or Enslaved? The Moral Dilemmas of Pets,” International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy (v.24/9, 2004);
- Y.-F. Tuan Dominance and Affection: The Making of Pets (Yale University Press, 1984).