Protecting people and their pets: Animal-human bond: benefits, risks and considerations

Editors note: The following is part of a two part series that will be continued in next week’s Good Life column.

Animal companionship plays an important role in many people’s lives. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, up to 36% of homes in the United States include a dog, cat, or bird, and many more share their lives with other pet types, including bunnies, lizards, and guinea pigs, just to name a few. Some people consider animals as placed firmly inside their family circle and refer to them as members of the family. As with any relationship, some human-pet relationships are likely to be more rewarding than others, and some people are more attached to their pets than others. Feelings of attachment to a pet can influence the effect of the pet on the person’s health and perceptions of pets as sources of comfort and companionship.

The significance of pets to human health has long been acknowledged by the US National Institutes of Health. While more research is developing, findings do show that sharing one’s life with a pet can offer many health benefits. Encouraging interactions between pets and people promotes human wellbeing. According to the National Center on Health Research, animals, as valued companions, primarily improve health by lowering stress levels. Reducing stress can be an important way to promote overall health and is associated with lowering blood pressure, reducing cardiovascular risk, and decreasing anxiety. Nonjudgmental social support through animal companionship can encourage social interaction with people, reduce the social isolation associated with living with chronic disease, promote physical function, and promote mental wellbeing and feelings of social cohesion.

Sharing life with an animal companion also has potential risks. According to “Pets’ impact on your patients’ health: leveraging benefits and mitigating risk” in The Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine, animal companions can “infect people with disease, cause injury, and challenge resource prioritization.” These risks can be decreased through routine animal and human care, animal behavior assistance, and planning. While the care of an animal has been shown across all ages and stages to offer potential benefit, it is best balanced with recognizing the associated risks, a realistic plan, and a goal of wellbeing for both humans and animals.

The decision to share one’s life with an animal companion is an individual one and in all cases should be made by the person who will be living with and caring for the pet. If you are considering adding an animal to your network of support, contact your local animal welfare organization, which may be able to connect you with resources for pet adoption or support.

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