Do humans and pets really benefit from their special bond?

Today’s guest blogger is Carlo Siracusa, DVM, PhD, MS, director of the Animal Behavior Service at Penn Vet’s Ryan Hospital.

About 36.5 percent of U.S. households own at least one dog, and 30.4 percent own at least one cat, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. As a highly social species, humans are willing to share their lives with individuals of the same or other species. Our ancestors initiated the relationship with animals for utilitarian reasons. When the domestication process improved the ability of dogs and cats to safely live and communicate with us, affection probably started to take over. But why do pets make such good companions for humans?

For dogs, the answer can be found by observing their interactions with people. Dogs carefully observe humans to try to decode body language and to understand how safe it is to interact and what the human wants. Studies on dog cognition show that domestic dogs are gifted animals that understand human communication and learn from what we do. A beautiful example is seen in the Do as I Do training, in which dogs imitate human actions. This type of learning, called “social learning,” is possible between species that are close enough to understand each other. The dog ancestor, the wolf, already possessed the complex vocabulary needed for sharing life with other wolves in peace. Domestication adapted this vocabulary to the dog’s new life with humans.

Domestic cats are also considered a social species, but their ancestors, wild cats, are solitary animals. Therefore, domestic cats did not develop the same advanced communicative skills of dogs. Our feline friends tend to be more independent from us than dogs, while still showing attachment and affection. Independence is a trait valued by many cat owners that has contributed to the popularity of this species. The ability of cats to keep small rodents away from our homes is another winning skill.

Some beneficial effects of interacting with a pet have been measured in scientific studies. We know, for example, that walking a dog is beneficial for some individuals who have suffered a heart attack, and that interacting with a dog increases our level of “feel-good” hormones like oxytocin and endorphins. Interacting with a pet may lower our anxiety and improve our mood in stressful contexts. Kids living with dogs are less likely to have pet allergies and eczema, an allergic disease that affects the skin. It is also known that, for some people, the grieving process for the loss of a pet can be as painful and difficult as the loss of a human companion.

How much does a pet benefit from living with humans? There are some obvious and immediate benefits that make the relationship between pets and humans so successful, for example, an animal’s easy access to food and a safe territory. But does a pet feel good about interacting with a human that it likes? Studies confirm that dogs like contact with their human companions and they experience an increase of “feel-good” hormones. Science also shows that dogs tend to follow the advice and example of their human companions for solving problems.

So far, everything looks pretty good in the interaction between humans and pets. Is this always the case? Absolutely not. Behavior problems that affect the quality of the relationship with humans are a very common cause of rehoming and euthanasia. Different dogs and cats have different personalities, and some are more social than others. Pets should be given the opportunity to express their normal behavior, putting aside our unrealistic expectations that all dogs and cats should love all humans. We must make an effort to understand dog and cat communication based on the available scientific information, so we can fulfill their needs and provide them with the best possible welfare.

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