The Human-Animal Bond: From Feelings To Facts

by Teresa Garden, DVM

The greatest fringe benefit I enjoy as a veterinarian is being able to bring my dog to work with me. I’ll sneak into my office between appointments and just steal a glance at her as she sleeps in her little bed beneath my desk. I immediately feel love, tenderness, and warmth. Baby is the best antidote for a chaotic day and for those sad days as the circumstances dictate. No healthcare insurance plan can compete with her. Those stolen moments help to remind me why I wanted to be a veterinarian in the first place. I know my clients feel the same amount of joy and happiness sharing their lives with their pets. It is my mission to help keep those pets healthy so their bond may continue to be enjoyed for as long as possible.

A bond can be defined as “a factor that can influence an individual’s well-being; a social relationship”. The human-animal bond has been studied for the past 50 years. There is now a significant body of literature accumulated which shows the benefits people gain from positive social interactions with animals.

One of the most important benefits people derive from the bond is social support. A survey study conducted in 1985 by Voitin concluded most pet owners talked to their pets at least once per day; talked to them about important subjects at least once a month and believe their pets are aware of their mood changes. A 1983 study by McNiell and Taylor concluded animals help people make friends and become acquainted with more people.
People with pets are perceived as happier and more approachable and are more likely to be engaged in conversation by unfamiliar people than people without pets. (Hunt, Hart, and Gomulkiewicz 1992). The NAVC (North American Veterinary Conference) Clinician’s Brief reviewed three studies conducted by McConnell, Brown, Shoda, et. Al in 2011. The first study found pet owners did better in several well-being measures (exercise, fitness, self-esteem, loneliness) than people without pets. Pet owners also scored higher in individual-difference measures (more conscientious, more extroverted, less fearful, less preoccupied). The second study showed support provided by pets complement human sources. Dogs can fill social needs of pet owners effectively. The third study concluded pets helped pet owners deal with social rejection. Overall, these studies showed pets can be just as important as siblings and parents. Pet owners were shown to be both physically and emotionally healthier than their non-pet-owning peers.

Pets have been shown to provide a variety of health benefits in addition to social support. A study among people hospitalized for heart attacks showed pet owners had better 1-year survival rates than non-pet owners (Erika Friedman 1980). Elderly people with pet birds had better survival rates than those without birds (Mugford, McComsky, 1975). A decreased rate of depression was found among older people strongly attached to their pets (Garriety et al 1989). Studies have confirmed pets help lower blood pressure in their owners during stressful situations (Friedman et al 1983, Wilson 1991). Research studies continue to confirm health benefits therapy dogs and cats provide to hospitalized patients and nursery home residents.

Children also benefit from interaction with pets and animals. Pets were shown to increase self-esteem in children and adolescents (Covert et al 1985). Children with attention deficit disorder had significant improvement in behavior when the children were allowed to interact with animals (Rowan 1994). Dogs are valuable therapeutic companions for autistic children. Blessings Unleashed is a wonderful organization that pairs autism assistance dogs with autistic children. Parents have reported these dogs brought comfort to their child in the form of reduced anxiety, increased calmness, and increased relaxation. They helped wandering children stay at home and kept distracted children focused. The dogs were found to improve communication and social skills in autistic children. The dogs acted as conversation starters for children who were initially nonverbal. They helped children learn to play with toys and other siblings. They were found to help the children sleep better at night. All of these anecdotal accounts reported by parents have now been confirmed by scientific research studies.

There is a unique significance of each human-animal bond. It is integral in the philosophy of a holistic veterinary practice to assess and respect each human-animal relationship. This special relationship can be threatened by illness, injury, misbehavior, or death. The medical needs of our animal patients and the emotional needs of our clients will arise concurrently during difficult times. Holistic veterinarians will strive to address these needs simultaneously. As Roger Caras once said, “dogs are not our whole life, but they make our lives whole”. I have no doubt the same can be said of many other species of pets we welcome into our lives with an open heart.

Dr. Teresa Garden is chief veterinarian/owner of Animal Health & Healing, a full-service holistic and conventional veterinary practice in the Maplewood/Richmond Heights area. Visit online at AnimalHealthandHealing.com; or phone: 314-781-1738.