Understanding Our Kinship with Animals: Input for Health Care Professionals Interested In the Human/Animal Bond

, Alan Beck

California State Polytechnic University

Purdue University

Cats delight the eye by delicately walking among vases and sculpture or stalking a piece of string or exploring an empty paper bag. They are almost never self-conscious, and they do not use your direct gaze as an invitation. While walking in a park or wood, the wandering trail of the dog as it explores its environment gives our gaze a path to follow and a place to rest. The dog’s form and motion provide a foreground for the confusion of natural scenes and make visual choices for us. Alternatively, the sight of a sleeping dog can induce a sense of relaxation and well-being.

Between Pets and People: The Importance of Animal Companionship

(Alan Beck and Aaron Katcher, 1996)

1.1 Introduction

This introductory chapter provides readers not only with a basic foundation to appreciate and understand this unique kinship with all living creatures but also to discover the roots to the overwhelming growing interest in animal-assisted intervention (AAI). The chapter should also help solidify and clarify how the benefits witnessed within this unique bond have prompted numerous professionals to become more curious about the advantages of animal-assisted interventions.

It is apparent that dogs have been bred to coexist with their human counterparts and have filled many roles including herding, guarding, hunting, fishing and being our best friend (Clutton-Brock, 1995). Dogs have also been widely used as service animals, supporting the quality of life of people in need. There have been increasing insights into science’s current understanding of dog behavior and cognition. Perhaps one of the strongest insights that she discusses pertains to dogs’ ability to understand our behaviors (Hare, 2007; Hare et al., 2002). Horowitz (2009) explains that dogs’ strengths in communicating with humans relate to their predisposed ability to inspect our faces for critical information, for reassurance and for guidance. These traits are a definite asset for their interactions. In essence, dogs are keen observers of our reactions.

As time progresses, numerous interventions have developed employing a strong belief that relationships with animals contribute to the well-being of people. Although plagued with poor research, limited scientific evidence, animal-assisted interventions have grown, primarily on anecdotal outcomes. It is apparent that clinicians from numerous disciplines seem to have become enamored with the therapeutic roles that animals have in the lives of their patients. For some, their clinical interests stem from their personal convictions and attractions to animals, while others have been driven because of their perceived perception that animals may provide a useful alternative for clinical application.

1.2 Introduction to the human/animal bond (HAB)

The science of understanding the human/animal connection appears to have made some healthy steps forward since the National Institutes of Health (NIH) convened a workshop on the health benefits of pets in 1987 (NIH, 1987). In fact, in the fall of 2008, a similar meeting was held in Bethesda, Maryland, under the auspices of the National Institute of Child and Human Development addressing the need for clarity in research. Beck and Katcher (2003) point out that there is still a continued need to generate awareness of the importance of human/animal interactions and to truly study the specifics of the nature of this relationship. Nevertheless, some progress has been made identifying the physiological and psychological benefits that animals provide to our lives. Ever since the benchmark study by Friedmann et al. (1980) that demonstrated the health benefits of pet owners a year after being discharged from a coronary care program, the curiosity of HAB has grown steadfast. In fact, Phillips (2002) points out that, in the United Kingdom, pet ownership seems to result in savings to the national health program to the sum of about £600 million per year.

The interest in the human/animal connection has been heightened in the past few decades as a direct result of mainstream media’s and the popular press’s coverage of the impact of animals on humans’ lives. This coverage has increased the general public’s curiosity to our unique relationships with animals. It is evident that many people seem to romanticize their relationships with animals (Fine and Eisen, 2008). Although with good intentions, some treat animals as if they are part human. Jon Katz (2003) in his book The New Work of Dogs warns readers that pet owners use dogs to fill emotional gaps in their lives. He warns that dog owners have created exceedingly high expectations for emotional support they expect from their pets—forgetting that animals are not humans. Most scholars would argue that to consider their behavior human is an injustice and disrespectful to the animal. Although potentially harmful, anthropomorphism, and its way of thinking, does have its positives and negatives. Beckoff (2007) writes in New Scientist Life that he believes that while we should not impose human attributes onto animals, we may use anthropomorphisms as a strategy to identify commonalities and then use human language to communicate what we observe. According to Steven Mithen (1996) in his book The Prehistory of the Mind: An Exchange, without anthropomorphism, neither pet keeping nor animal domestication would ever have been possible. Serpell (2003) suggests that by enabling our ancestors to attribute human thoughts, feelings, motivations, to other species, the process and the way of thinking opened the gateway for some animals to become more readily accepted in human circles first as pets, and ultimately becoming domestic dependents. Serpell (1996) also argues in an earlier paper that most pet owners believe that their animals genuinely “love” or “admire” them. He suggests that the fact remains that without this belief system, the relationships most people have with pets would be essentially meaningless. The inheritances we share with non-human animals is the basis for all biomedical research and it is most likely the roots of behavioral processes; indeed, we have a great deal in common with the animals that share our lives (Beck, 1996). Perhaps anthropomorphizing our pets says something about our needs as humans (Fine and Eisen, 2008).

We are now entering a new crossroads in an era of scientific curiosity where there is a greater interest to define the underlying mechanisms of the bond. More scholars are now becoming curious about the underlying mechanisms that allow these interventions to be considered much more than puppy love. Although there are a wealth of testimonials documenting the significance of animals in our lives, Knight and Herzog (2009) point out that there is limited empirical research that has explored these relationships. Perhaps today’s glamor found in this unique affection/connection with animals and within animal-assisted interventions is directly related to the mystique of interspecies bonding. People seem intrigued with our similarities and differences and want to better understand our relationships with domestic and exotic animals.

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association (2007), there were 72 million dogs owned in the USA in 2006. Who would have thought that the pet industry would become an annual $45 billion industry in the USA where funds are spent to make the quality of life more comfortable for our companion animals (American Pet Products Association, 2009)? Within the report estimates have been made which articulate where the money is actually spent. The following highlights the findings:

  • Food $17.4 billion

  • Supplies/OTC medicine $10.2 billion

  • Vet care $12.2 billion

  • Live animal purchases $2.2 billion

  • Pet services: grooming and boarding $3.4 billion

1.3 Defining the human/animal bond

Turner (2007) points out that the human/animal bond is a well-documented phenomenon that has been around since humans began domesticating animals. The strength of the human/animal connection allowed companion animals to quickly adopt roles as members of the family. Chandler (2001), Serpell (1996) and Flom (2005) have documented that the power of the human/animal bond has been described in sources as diverse as ancient literature, modern fiction, and research reports in the professional literature. All have pointed out there is something extraordinary about our relationships, which are quite different than conventional human relationships. Ian Robinson (1995) highlights the association between people and animals and provides some insights into these relationships. He suggested that the more similar the social organization and communication systems are of the two species, the more likely that each will understand the other better. He ends his essay by suggesting that our relationships with other species fulfill human needs that are beyond simple economic needs.

Konrad Lorenz (the famous ethologist), Boris Levinson (a psychotherapist who is considered by many as the father of animal-assisted therapy) and Leo Bustad (founder of the Delta Society) were perhaps the three most influential people who pioneered the term the human/animal bond. Lorenz once stated that the wish to keep an animal usually arises from a general longing for a bond with nature. The bond with a true dog is as lasting as the ties of this earth can ever be. Bustad (1983) extended this quote by stating that this bond is similar to human functions that go hand in hand with the emotions of love and friendship in the purest and noblest forms. Beck (1999) noted that the term “bond” was borrowed from the terminology linked to the relationship cherished by parents and their children.

Although the term seems simplistic to understand, Davis and Balfour (1992) claim that there is no universally accepted definition of human/animal bond. This lack of agreement was also suggested in the writings of Bayne (2002). Although there does not seem to be universal agreement within the definition, several researchers have identified a few common specific ingredients. Tannenbaum (1995) suggested that the relationship needs to be of a continuous nature and must be bi-directional. Furthermore, he points out that the relationships should be voluntary. Russow (2002) also suggested that the relationship needs to be reciprocal and persistent. She explains that there is no true bond if the animal does not recognize you. She also suggests that the relationship involves increased trust on the animal’s behalf and increased caring and understanding of the animal’s needs on the part of the human. In her article, as well as others including Beck (1999), the authors all seem to highlight the mutual benefit of the bond that promotes an increase in the well-being for both parties.

Bonding is the forming of close, specialized human relationships, such as the link between parent and child, husband and wife, friend and friend. Many of these relationships are recognized by behaviors understood by all involved. Similar behaviors, often in similar settings, are seen in animals, especially birds and mammals, and we often use the same term—“bonding.” Domesticated animals are invariably social species that exhibit social interaction and “bonding-like” behaviors among themselves. The humane community adopted the term because they wanted to capture the spirit and connotation of the “infant/parent bond.” Those who care about animals want to imply that the relationship is healthy and natural. While some argue that the bond with animals does not emulate all the psychological implications of human/human bonding, the general public uses the term both in its literal meaning and as a metaphor for the many roles animals play in our lives.

Finally, the American Veterinary Medical Association’s Committee on the Human-Animal Bond defines the human/animal bond as, “a mutually beneficial and dynamic relationship between people and other animals that is influenced by behaviors that are essential to the health and well-being of both. This includes, but is not limited to, emotional, psychological, and physical interactions of people, other animals, and the environment” (JAVMA, 1998).

1.4 Pets and people: case studies reveal the importance

Some may wonder why there is such an intense focus on people and their pets. From a purely pragmatic point of view, pets fill a void in most owners’ lives. Instead of an empty house, people come home to a happy loving animal such as a dog or a cat. In 2002, the organization Pawsitive InterAction held its inaugural educational conference on the human/animal bond in Atlanta, Georgia. While at the meeting, Beck (2002) suggested that one of the growing reasons why pets are so revered is that animals offer an array of health benefits, beyond their loving companionship. He stated that “the companionship of animals decreases loneliness and stimulates conversation.” He also went on to elaborate that by encouraging touch and giving humans a loving creature to care for, the interaction with animals stimulates physical reactions that are very necessary and important in humans.

Dr. Edward Creagan (2002), a professor of medical oncology at the Mayo Clinic, who also attended the meeting pointed out that he believes there is an indisputable mind/body connection that is anchored by our pets. He believes that pets create a balance between one’s mind and body. Fine (2006) and Fine and Eisen (2008) also suggest that our pet companions provide a source of pleasure, connection to the outside world and for some people the promise of hope and a reason to live. The virtue of hope is a state of mind that allows people to reach deep inside to persevere. In the instance of the human/animal bond, some people may find hope in unusual places, such as puppy’s big brown eyes!

Over the years, both the authors have listened to and heard numerous personal accounts on the importance of animals in the lives of people. Fine coauthored a book that highlights numerous accounts of how people have disclosed the importance of their relationship with their beloved companion animals or therapy animals (Fine and Eisen, 2008). Nevertheless, one example jumps out and is exemplary in explaining this position.

Several years ago, Rev. Delana Taylor McNac, a hospice chaplain, encountered an elderly couple, Harold and Rose, who lived in an apartment with a black and tan, rather portly Dachshund named “Stretch.” Harold was on hospice for terminal heart disease. Not long after his admission, Harold’s condition stabilized somewhat and he was on hospice for over a year. Unfortunately, his wife Rose began to decline. She began to have memory lapses that kept her from helping Harold take his medications properly. He was too weak to care for her and the stress on them both began to show. A decision was made to move the couple, but their children decided they would move them to a place without Stretch. The staff attempted to intervene, knowing how important the dog was to Harold, but to no avail. An out-of-state relative took the dog away the day of the move, before we could offer additional options.

When McNac next visited Harold and Rose in their new apartment, she was shocked at the change in him. He sat alone in a back room in the dark, quietly grieving. He told her that he missed his dog, and he worried about how Stretch was doing in his new home. His wife, despite her confusion, knew that he was missing his dog and she was angry at the family for taking him away.

Over the next six weeks, Harold continued to decline rapidly. He also became increasingly confused, remembering who McNac was, but not knowing why she visited him. Her last visit was one she would never forget. She explained how she observed Harold was lying on his bed, fully clothed, talking nonsensically to no one in particular, staring at the television. Beside him, where Stretch always lay, Harold petted an invisible dog over and over again. He died later that night.

The essence of this case study portrays how important animals can become in the lives of many, including those with terminal illnesses. In an upcoming chapter within this volume on palliative care, more attention will be given to explain this phenomenon. However, it is important to realize that when one is adjusting to and coping with any chronic illness, one’s emotional outlook is of utmost importance, and animals may act as an important social support in these times (Fine and Eisen, 2008). Johnson (2008) in an interview discussed her research in the area of cancer. She noted that the patients who received dog visits in her study revealed that the animals helped them feel less anxious. They also disclosed that the pet visits provided them with a distraction from their grueling treatment.

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Feb 16, 2017 | Posted by in GENERAL | Comments Off on Understanding Our Kinship with Animals: Input for Health Care Professionals Interested In the Human/Animal Bond

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