Why do we keep pets?

On a cold day I saw a homeless man feeding stray cats in Ueno Park. Why, to begin with, did he feed a cat even though he seemed to be struggling to feed himself day by day?

These days a lot of families keep either dogs or cats and some even keep both animals. It is fun to keep pets and feed them. So, it seems to be a kind of instinct. When people fondle pets it is like they dandle their own children. When pets snuggle us trustingly, we get the same feeling as when children spend time with us. Actually, many people treat pets like children. So why do we consider children to be cute and why do we want to protect them?

The young of any animal including human babies have some specific features in common which are only understandable as a course of body growth. For example, the extremities of their bodies such as tails, legs and ears are shorter than those of adults, so consequently they have disproportionately large heads compared to their bodies. However, large heads are consequential considering brain cells are already prepared when the young are born. Large heads and short legs make their movement awkward which makes them lovable. We can’t stop smiling when we see a toddler waddling with unsteady steps. Furthermore, they have relatively large eyes because they are the first to develop among facial features. The large eyes give them a cute look.

Most young such as the downy chicks of penguins and baby mammals have softer and longer bushy fur than their parents simply because their ability to retain body temperature is not well developed. In addition, almost all young call in a high tone because high frequency sound travels in a straight path, hence travels further which is useful for calling their mothers.

All these features are common in the young of most animal species and they charm us and trigger our instinct to protect them.

Popular pets such as small dogs and cats have these traits even when they grow up. They are furry with relatively round body shapes, large eyes and call in a high pitch. That must be one of the reasons why these animals have been our companions from time immemorial.   

The behavior of most insects, fish, reptiles and amphibians is inherited. They feed and raise their young merely by instinct. Along with the development of the cerebral cortex, much innate behavior has seen converted into acquired behavior as we can see from the eminent examples in human beings. However deep inside, our behavior stems from instinct and plays out in a blindly mechanical way. The survival instinct is advantageous as it enables us to protect ourselves. This extends to our innate desire to protect others, particularly small children. So when an animal has characteristics similar to children, we want to protect and nurture them.

If you can’t resist the temptation to feed a pussy on the street you are already trapped by your own unconscious protective instinct and therefore under the cat’s paw. Meow!