Tips for the vet: The human-animal bond

Guest article written by Dr. Andy Frost, Pacific Veterinary Clinic

It is well recognized that humans obtain health benefits from our association with animals. Pet owners recover from surgeries and heart attacks more quickly and at higher rates than non-pet owners. Stroking a pet prior to or during a stressful event lowers a person’s blood pressure even more than holding a family member’s or friend’s hand. The benefits of therapy animals in hospitals, nursing homes, or as individual companions are so established that they are allowed in places that public health laws normally restrict animal access.

Is this a one-sided relationship? Do animals gain health and emotional benefits from their associations with us?

Clearly, a well-cared for pet in a home obtains the obvious advantages of good nutrition, adequate shelter, appropriate vaccination and parasite prevention, spaying/neutering, a healthy environment, and mental stimulation. Beyond this, a pet in a home gets the positive effects of recurring social and play interactions and continuity—not just providing physical and mental exercise, but a strengthening of the social context.

There is more recent research on dogs’ ability to copy behaviors that humans “model,” something previously thought unique to humans (now known to be done by dolphins and other species) and another clue that positive dog and human interactions are absolutely “wired” into both species’ behaviors. Canines and humans have co-evolved for about 32,000 years, changing dogs’ physiology (different dietary needs than wolves and wild dogs, changes in brain chemistry, etc.), as well as social structures. More research by ethicists is being published all of the time on how we humans influence our animal companions in addition to the ways animals have and continue to exert positive effects on us, our societies, and our environment.