Do Pets Create Community?

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Humans are social creatures, and so are our pets. There’s no doubt — in our minds, at least — that our cats, dogs, parrots, bearded dragons, fish, rats, and other companion animals are as capable of feeling strong bonds with us as we do with them. But, scientifically, is that bond a result of our pet’s active desire for community with us, or merely incidental?

There’s a lot of collective scientific knowledge into how humans develop community, much less so for pets. Defined not so much as a physical address, “community” is a collection of individuals who share common values and a common culture, who partake in organized interactions with one another, and who engage in strong, emotionally close relationships.

Using this definition of community, think of your favorite forum: You share common values and culture with other users, partake in organized interactions of sharing and responding, and create relationships — even if you never meet in person. No doubt you have felt the benefits of psychological well-being that comes with a form of community.

Do we receive those same community benefits with our companion animals? Many people feel as strong of bonds with their pets, if not stronger, as with fellow humans. But are we able to be in a community with our pets?

As of yet, research into this concept remains limited.

This is something Los Angeles sociologist Lisa Wade, PhD, wants to change. She recently shared a touching story of a stray cat, named Minou, that lived for more than a decade in her neighbor’s yard, thriving “on lizards and rainwater and the kindness of strangers.”

As Lisa recalls, this ordinary calico brought together neighbors who might not have otherwise created a community with one another. She called Minou the “node” in their network. Minou not only gave the neighbors a common responsibility, but she would seek out connection points in her relationships with humans. Lisa recalled Minou bringing her gifts of dead animals, and even waking up to find the cat snuggled up to her in bed, having found its way into her house. When it came time for Minou’s departure from this world, the community the cat had built gathered around her.

To Lisa, Minou was more than an incidental reason for her and her neighbor to come together — the cat appeared to actively nurture community.

How many communities have been created by cats, dogs, or other companion animals? At least as many as have a forever home — 65% of American households and 57% of Canadian households include at least one pet — and, very likely, there are countless more. A scientific look at this aspect of pet ownership has the capability of opening so many doors, not only for animal well-being but for our own well-being. I, for one, look forward to seeing companion animals get the recognition they deserve from the research community.