Cats behind bars — more proof of how pets bring out our best

For years, corrections officials have been incorporating animal training programs into the various penal facilities that exist around the country. Many animals have been used, especially dogs.

The Seattle Times, in its May 3, 2012, edition is running a story called “Cats bringing out the soft side of inmates,”on the success of a program in a Vancouver, WA-area prison that is teaming cats with prisoners, in order to teach the incarcerated prisoners greater compassion, as well as modify their behavior and thus reduce risks, violence, and costs.

It appears to be working since its launch in January 2012.  The story describes how two inmates are paid 35 cents an hour to care for a 6-year-old cat with “a testy disposition.” The project is taking place at the Larch Corrections Center, which is described as a minimum-custody prison. In the words of one of the prisoners working with the cats: “This gives you a softer side; it makes you feel like you have a kid at home. When I’ve been out during the day I remember I’ve got my daughter at home waiting for me.”

The story notes that prisoners at the Washington Corrections Center for Women, in Gig Harbor, WA, have trained dogs for owners with special needs for three decades, and since the 1980s, dog-training programs have spread to much of the state prisons.

Mrs. Chippy, the cat on the ill-fated Antarctic expedition of the Endurance, and one of the most beloved members of the entire crew by the extremely hardened men who loved her.

So, once again, there is evidence of the mutually beneficial relationship that humans have with pets, and how human health and behavior can be positively impacted by the interaction with animals.

This does not involve costly technology, or coercive techniques, or anything that is radically new or not even known to researchers and people with good judgment and basic common sense. It does involve leadership and the willingness of those who run such institutions to try out something new.

Here is to the cats in at the Larch Corrections Center. Good work, and keep on purring.

Why we love pets, and why it is healthy for us

One of the benefits of paying tuition to a research university (in my case the University of Washington) is that you get access to otherwise off-limits articles. I am not allowed to share a full copy of this 1997 article by John Archer on why humans love pets, but I’ll include the abstract and some key findings:

-Compared to nonowners, pet owners are found to show significantly reduced physiological risk factors for cardiovascular disease, such as plasma cholesterol and triglyceride levels, and systolic blood pressure (Anderson 1992; Anderson et al. 1992). These differences could not be attributable to confounding variables such as socioeconomic status, body weight, or smoking habits (Anderson 1992).

-Among patients who had been treated for myocardial infarction or angina pectoris, pet ownership was significantly associated with lower mortality 1 year later (Friedman et al. 1980); this association remained even when dog owners were removed, to control for their additional exercise. Pet owners also show less intense reactions to stress (Bergler 1992), fewer psychosomatic symptoms (Bergler 1992), and fewer visits to medical practitioners than nonowners (Siegel 1992), a finding that was attributed to the stress-buffering effect of pet ownership.

-Other studies show the direct effects of interacting with a pet (e.g., stroking it) on physiological measures indicative of relaxation, such as heart rate and blood pressure (Lysons 1992).

-A sample of children in an experimental situation where they were asked to read aloud showed comparable lowered blood pressure and heart rates when a friendly dog was present (Friedmann et al. 1983).

-A 10-month prospective study (Serpell 1991) examined changes in health and behavior following acquisition of a dog or cat and in a control group without pets. Pet owners showed a highly significant reduction in minor health problems and improved scores on a standardized questionnaire, the General Health Questionnaire (Goldberg and Williams 1978). These effects were more prolonged among dog than cat owners.

Why Do People Love Their Pets?
John Archer, Department of Psychology, University of Central Lancashire, Preston, United Kingdom
Evolution and Human Behavior 18:237-259 (1997)

Abstract: The evidence that people form strong attachments with their pets is briefly reviewed before identifying the characteristics of such relationships, which include pets being a source of security as well as the objects of caregiving. In evolutionary terms, pet ownership poses a problem, since attachment and devoting resources to another species are, in theory, fitness-reducing. Three attempts to account for pet keeping are discussed, as are the problems with these views. Pet keeping is placed into the context of other forms of interspecific associations. From this, an alternative Darwinian explanation is proposed: pets are viewed as manipulating human responses that had evolved to facilitate human relationships, primarily (but not exclusively) those between parent and child. The precise mechanisms that enable pets to elicit caregiving from humans are elaborated. They involve features that provide the initial attraction, such as neotenous characteristics, and those that enable the human owner to derive continuing satisfaction from interacting with the pet, such as the attribution of mental processes to human-like organisms. These mechanisms can, in some circumstances, cause pet owners to derive more satisfaction from their pet relationship than those with humans, because they supply a type of unconditional relationship that is usually absent from those with other human beings.

For those with access to such databases, you may wish to find the full article, or there is a chance Google Scholar may have it somewhere in the “gray literature” area online.

And this is one of many pieces of peer reviewed research that highlights the many health benefits of pets and the incredibly strong emotion attachments humans have with them. (Go to the Delta Society web site for other research published online).