Pet Connections Promote Environmental Sustainability

4 min read

As 2023 continues to break global heat records month after month (Hausfather, 2023), taking better care of the environment could not be more important. And although the majority of Americans believe global warming is real and requires immediate action to address it (Marlon et al., 2022), the gap between holding these beliefs and performing the necessary behaviors to ensure sustainability is large and growing.

How can we get more people to care about the environment? Recent research suggests that our relationships with pets can increase people’s connection to nature and commitment to performing pro-environmental behaviors.

Pets as a Bridge to Greater Concern About Nature

One important way to motivate sustainability is to view nature as a more central part of people’s self-concept (Korach & McConnell, 2021). When we include others (e.g., loved ones, friends, pets) in our self-concepts, we become more concerned about them and want to protect them (e.g., McConnell et al., 2011; Oveis et al., 2010).

Allen R. McConnell

Pets motivate people to care more about nature.

Allen R. McConnell

For example, as people view nature as more integrated into their sense of self (i.e., nature is a larger part of one’s identity, the distinction between self and nature becomes more blurry), they are more likely to perform pro-environmental behaviors (McConnell & Jacobs, 2020). However, with the average American spending 92% of their time in human-built environments (Klepeis et al., 2001; Sallis et al., 2012), opportunities to be outside to develop connections with nature are rare.

Yet, most Americans have pets and care about them deeply, viewing them as important to their self-concepts (McConnell et al., 2011). And although most people view their companion animals as “family members,” they also acknowledge that pets are animals as well (McConnell et al., 2019).

This duality of seeing companion animals as important elements of people’s sense of self while also viewing them as a part of nature allows pets to serve as a bridge between our everyday world and fostering greater concern about nature. In short, pets are important to who we are and they are many people’s most frequent points of contact with nature, thus leveraging this bridge can promote sustainability.

Empirical evidence

In a research paper published this fall, Jacobs et al. (2023) found that people’s relationships with pets can make them more concerned about protecting nature as well. One of their studies looked at the extent to which people anthropomorphize pets (i.e., ascribe human-like qualities and traits to them) and it assessed the extent to which people hold nature-centered motivations and perform pro-environmental behaviors. As people viewed their pets as having richer emotional experiences (e.g., can feel pain, can feel pleasure), they showed more intentions to perform pro-environmental behaviors and more concern about nature.

Allen R. McConnell

Pets anthropomorphism increases commitment to the environment.

Allen R. McConnell

Next, in a follow-up study, Jacobs and colleagues manipulated people’s sense that pets have rich (vs. poor) emotional lives using an experimental design. Specifically, they had participants in their study read bogus articles (purportedly written by experts but actually carefully crafted by the experimenters) to manipulate perceptions of whether pets have rich or impoverished emotional lives. Participants who read the article suggesting that pets have strong emotional experiences were more likely to show greater concern about nature and more commitment to perform pro-environmental behaviors. Thus, ascribing companion animals with stronger degrees of emotional anthropomorphism led people to show more engagement with sustainability.


Thus, our connection with pets can serve as a bridge to encourage greater sustainability. Our ability to ascribe human-like emotional qualities to companion animals increases our concern not only about our pets but about nature as well because pets serve as a bridge between our everyday world and nature more broadly.

A great deal of research has shown that our connection to pets improves our own health and well-being (McConnell et al., 2011, 2017, 2019) when we perceive them as possessing human-like qualities, and now this recently published research (Jacobs et al., 2023) shows that human-pet connections can play an important role in the health and well-being of our planet as well.

Disclaimer: The views posted on this site are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of my employer.

You May Also Like

+ There are no comments

Add yours