The national Love Your Pet Day is coming up on February 20th. People have had pets since the beginning of the human species – tens of thousands of years. Whether birds were trained to deliver messages or snakes were charmed to charm, cats were to be worshiped as gods, horses were to be charged into battle, elephants were to display the majesty of wealth, or monkeys were to sit observantly on shoulders, animals have been cultivated and domesticated to provide complement and compatriot to man. Of all of these pet companions, dogs have endured the longest and the most auspiciously. Dogs make wonderful pets; they work hard at it. The endurance and evolution of the species reveals valuable lessons in cooperation and adaptability.
There are 525 million dogs in the world and 7.4 billion people; that’s one dog for every 14 people in the world. 75% of dogs reside in the developing countries; there is one dog family member in one-third to one-half of all households in the U.S. Americans spend an average of $1200. to adopt a new puppy and get her started in life, and about $500. for each successive year of ownership. (Most dog breeds have a 10 to 15-year lifespan.) U.S. pet owners spend close to $60 billion a year on their pets with cat and dog ownership almost evenly split. Subtract from that figure the costs associated with pets like horses, birds, fish, and guinea pigs, and it’s safe to say close to $20 billion a year is spent on dog ownership each year.
As a comparison, the average cost to raise a child for 18 years is @$200K. Raising a dog who cannot speak, is always glad to see you, will perform heroic feats to save your life, and will happily perform tricks in front of the neighbors seems a relative bargain. And, dogs will never be too cool to hug you, will never be on a diet and refuse to try your newest recipe, and will never answer your cell phone to inform your boss that you are recycling beer cans and can’t come to the phone right now.
Dogs have been around for @40,000 years. The domestic dog today, Canis familiaris, descended from a wolf canid. Dogs are the oldest form of domesticated animal and are considered one of the most successful species on the planet because of their adaptability in socialization and relationships. Dogs have been with humans longer than any other animal and have learned – with human intervention – to be socially and behaviorally attuned to humans like no other species.
“[Dogs] are uniquely attuned to human behaviors. Behavioral scientists have uncovered a surprising set of social cognitive abilities…not possessed by the species closely related to the dog or by highly intelligent non-human species like the great apes. These skills parallel some of the social-cognitive skills of human children. Dogs demonstrate a theory of mind by engaging in deception” and other cognitive processes and behaviors. They appear empathetic and communicative to people and are able to learn skill sets and behaviors; they also have the memory to recall and respond to a wide variety of different commands and gestures and have the capacity to recognize hundreds of words. Significantly, they have also learned to work alongside humans as shepherds, herders, hunters, exterminators, guarders, detectors, policers, load pullers, guiders, companions, hearing aids, therapists, and best friends.
The hundreds of dog breeds today are relatively young for such an old animal. Humans have bred species of dogs for specific behaviors, features, and functions for millennia, but most current dog breeds are only a couple of hundred years old or less. There is a staggering diversity of dog appearance, size, behavior, and function. In tailoring their genetic traits, dog breeders have produced more desirable behaviors without losing the cognitive adaptability and function of the species; still, some physicality is lost in promoting other traits. For example, the male French Bulldog – the “it” dog breed in urban settings – is physically unable to mount the female for mating, so these dogs are produced through artificial insemination. (The same people that own French Bulldogs, one would assume, are in favor of cloning and gene research to cure and prevent disease and promote evolution in humans.) Hunting and guard dogs often have their tails docked to make them faster and less predisposed to being grabbed by the tail by brambles or hands. Try taking your teenager to get a haircut for a job interview and you will appreciate the predisposition to adaptability of the dog species.
From the beginning, dogs weren’t singled out by humans to be a mass-produced food source or predator for other food sources; they were selected, from all other species, to be bred for their behaviors. In fact, this selection – by nature and by nurture and human intercession in dog breeding – has reduced the fight or flight response of dogs compared to their wolf ancestors. Thus, through gene engineering, dogs are generally less fearful and less aggressive. This would make them more susceptible to modern predators…if the modern predators had made it as far as dogs have in the developing world. Who are their animal kingdom enemies? Mostly wolves, coyotes, leopards, hyenas, and alligators. These animals are also predators of humans, but account for a statistically insignificant number of human or dog deaths each year. Physiologically, dogs are considered predators and scavengers; but genetic manipulation has caused an evolution to a more domesticated dog species. Cats and sanitation workers may disagree.
Sadly, domesticated dogs can be abused and exploited through neglect and abandonment or raised to fight or bite indiscriminately. In the U.S., over a million dogs annually are abandoned by their owners and euthanized in animal shelters; 43 of 50 states have first time felony provisions for animal cruelty. Additionally, 13-16 million dogs each year are raised as livestock and consumed by humans in East Asia. This is a cultural distinction. Western societies have cultural distinctions of acceptable behaviors that are questionable, too. For example, as a comparison to the $20 billion spent on dog ownership in the United States, domestic violence in America costs about $8 billion a year; one in 4 people in the US can expect to be the victim of this abuse – while at home and perpetuated by a family member. Studies show that in @75% of domestic violence cases, the family pet is also abused.
Other social problems we cannot seem to cure for humans we have applied great vigor to diminishing for the world’s dogs. Overpopulation is controlled by the standard practice of neutering, which also makes dogs more compliant and sociable allowing a dog to recover from the constant hyper-aroused sexual state necessary to procreation. Conversely, the human male is prescribed Viagra, long past his procreation phase, to prolong his anti-social sexual frenzy. Modern dogs, unlike their wolf ancestors, have also adapted to a diet high in starch; though, as dog food makers and savvy owners offer more protein meal options, incidences of human diseases found in dogs like diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, and cancer, are declining. Conversely, Americans indulging in high-carb diets have pushed obesity (and related disease) to be the number one cause of health risks for adults and children and has surpassed cigarette smoking as the biggest reason for escalating health insurance costs.
Dogs are susceptible to more parasites, like worms, than humans because of their tendency to be outdoors and on a less rigorous bathing schedule than the average human child. Because of rigorous screening, marketing efforts, vaccinations, and pharmaceuticals, dogs are more likely to be checked and inoculated against these types of health conditions than children in undeveloped countries. And, dog owners – like parents – are often more vigilant for their pets’ health than for their own. As Jack LaLanne, the 20th century father of fitness once asked in an interview: “Would you get your dog up in the morning and give him a cup of coffee, a cigarette, and a doughnut?” Alas, gender bias still exists in the dog world, with male dogs being called “dogs” and female dogs still referred to as “bitches”, despite the semantic drift of the term in the 20th century indicating a widely accepted insult to describe an assertive female.
Rabies kills 55,000 people in Asia and Africa each year; some of these cases occur from dog bites. Dog bites are the primary health risk dogs pose to humans worldwide. In the U.S., falls account for the highest risk to humans from dogs. Still, the health benefits of owning a pet dog far outweigh the 100,000+ incidents of traffic accidents, bites, and falls combined caused by dogs; dog accidents like these account for about 1% of the total U.S. dog population and are not even a mathematical factor as a percent to the human population. A wild dingo ate Lindy Chamberlain’s baby in 1982, not the domesticated dog we celebrate as a pet.
We seem to be a world of pet lovers. We seem to be a nation with extreme ambivalence about humanity. On Love Your Pet Day, please go home and love up your canine companion. Take her for a walk, buy her a protein treat, don’t give her chocolate… While you are at it, say hi to your neighbor. Hug your kids. Say something kind to your spouse. Send $20. to a charity that helps people. Think about all of the human intervention that has made your little bundle of joy a kinder, gentler, more loving and helpful creature. Be thankful for your health and take care of it. Rover is depending on you, as is the human race.