The power of the human-animal bond

Dr K Rashbehari Singh *

Animals have played a significant role in human civilization for thousands of years. Human interaction with animals was first centered on getting animal products such as meat, hide, skin, dung, and bones, over time, human coexistence with these animals led to the beginning of their domestication.

The propagation of domestic animals changed the usual perception of animal roles from being utility-based to companionship, hence, the idea behind the concept of pets, which provide companionship and pleasure. It is the companion- ship that nurtures attachment, and pets exhibit stronger attachment to their owners and often experience separation anxiety when they get separated from their owners.

In our lives, so much love, joy, affection and humour were contributed by our pets and that human-animal bond may be deeply intertwined with our health and wellbeing. Our connections with our dogs, cats, birds, horses, etc., go deeper than words. These animals can sense our moods, and have the ability to bestow a joy and peacefulness in our lives.

The human-animal bond

The human-animal bond is the connection between humans and companion animals. The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) defines the human-animal bond as “a mutually beneficial relationship between people and animals.” Behaviours essential to the mental, physical, and social health and wellbeing of both influenced the bond. The veterinarian’s role is to maximize the potential of this relationship and to promote the wellbeing of people and animals.

The historical and scientific knowledge behind the human-animal bond provides a deeper understanding of the relationships between humans and animals and this will help the veterinary team better integrate the bond into clinical culture.

Long before the advent of current animal-assisted therapies, animals have been used in therapeutic environments in areas such as psychology, physical development, and physiology. In the 19th century, animals were assisting the blind, and Florence Nightingale alluded to the soothing and pleasure patients could gain from animal companionship. To address psycho- logical conditions such as depression and social/developmental conditions such as autism, animal-assisted interventions have been utilized.

Human-animal interaction has been shown to influence blood pressure, heart rate, and hormones correlated with wellbeing and mental health including oxitocin, beta-endorphin, prolactin, phenylacetic acid and dopamine.

Benefits of human-animal bond

In many ways, the human-animal bond benefits our pets. We love our pets, so, we make sure they are provided with food, shelter, medical care, entertainment, and affection. Being a pet owner means taking care of another life, but what we may not realize is that our pet is taking care of us in return. Scientific research shows that pet ownership is associated with numerous physical and mental health benefits.

Crisis situation management

For the people experiencing crisis situations, the human-animal bond can have both positive and negative influences on their health. Crisis situations are short-term overwhelming situations that disturb an individual’s normal state, causing stress and social isolation. Homelessness, domestic violence survivor-ship, incarceration, and hospitalization are the key crisis situations relevant to the concept of human-animal bond.

For the health of highly stressed or socially isolated people, the social support provided by pets is vital. Studies have indicated that people experiencing any of these crisis situations tend to be socially isolated and highly stressed, and that the social support provided by human-animal bonds can be pivotal for their health and coping. However, if a pet is left behind when escaping a crisis situation, negative cognitions associated with their pet’s safety can hinder a person’s recovery.

In inhospitable environments, people experiencing homelessness have profound emotional connec- tions to their pets, and this social support is vital to their endurance. Animal intervention programmes have also illustrated that a human-animal bond can motivate inmates to reduce recidivism and inmate violence, while promoting the development of life skills, a sense of self, and healthy behaviours, which improve coping and recovery after leaving jail.

On the other hand, pets are crucial supporters, confidants, and allies for domestic violence survivors. Animal welfare/health organizations, prison systems, hospital systems, crisis support services and Government legislation should attempt to preserve and to strengthen human-animal bond for supporting the wellbeing, coping and recovery of people experiencing crisis situations.

Mental health

After the COVID-19 pandemic, from the difficulties of being quarantined at home, job loss and economic uncertainty, people are facing mental health crisis. In such situation, pets can have a positive impact in our mental health and wellbeing.

Pets can have a significant impact on quality of life and mental health. For those who lives alone or is otherwise socially isolated, pets help to relieve loneliness and increase socialization. Pets provide a sense of purpose and add meaning to their lives to older adults or others who live alone.

Pets provide comfort and companionship. This may be particularly true for children who have difficulty making friends.

There are many mental health benefits of pet ownership. It has been shown to reduce stress, depression and anxiety and improve overall quality of life. Pets can divert negative thoughts, promote exercise and provide a calm presence. Emotional companionship is the greatest direct benefit of pet ownership. It can even be life-saving for people living with mental illness.

Pets are a consistent source of unconditional love and affection and they intuitively provide this support in times of need and can be a helpful distraction from ruminations on negative thoughts, including suicidal tendency. Pets seemingly listen without response, there is no fear of interruptions, criticisms and advice, and maintain confidentiality. They make people feel good about themselves and provide reasons to live.

Cardiovascular health

Interacting with companion animals is associated with beneficial effects including lower blood pressure, cholesterol levels and triglyceride levels.

Stress reduction

One of the best parts of being a canine (or feline) is the power to alleviate our stress. Our brain release “feel good” or happiness hormones when petting and cuddling of pets, and we experience a decrease in stress hormones. This process boosts mood and can even relieve pain. Interacting with an animal result in a measurable decrease in levels of cortisol (a stress hormone).

High levels of stress can weaken immune function. It seems that a positive interaction with an animal boosts our levels of oxitocin (a hormone associated with bonding and affection), which counteracts the effects of stress on the body and mind.

Encourage exercise and activity

Exercise is essential in dog’s health and well-being, and too little exercise can cause behavioural problems. Exercise is also a critical component of mental health of humans. Dogs motivate us to take a walk. People who walk their dogs are more likely to reach a healthy level of moderate-intensity physical activity.

Making healthier and more resilient

Pets offer unconditional love, which can increase confidence and self esteem to the owners. They provide physical as well as psychological benefits to pet owners, and may contribute to improved resiliency.

Personal wellness

Among senior citizens, those who own either a dog or a cat are statistically more capable of a range of activities such as climbing stairs, bending, kneeling, stooping, preparing meals, bathing and dressing, and correctly taking medication, compared with those who do not own either dog or cat. It is thought that through caring of their pets, they practice these same skills and concurrently keep themselves healthier and more capable as well.

Improved mood

Simple act of stroking a friendly animal increases dopamine and serotonin levels in the brain, two chemicals that are essential for happiness and relaxation.

Therapy dogs

Therapy dogs are dogs that are trained to provide affection, comfort and support to people, often in settings such as hospitals, retirement homes, nursing homes, schools, libraries, hospices, or disaster areas. Therapy dogs are present in physical therapy sessions or social work environments and serve to improve people’s motivation to reach goals.

Fostering a strong human-animal bond

As pets are individuals who have needs and desires, pet owners should allow their pets to interact with them in appropriate ways. Spend time with your pet as well as giving them adequate exercise, playtime, socialization, and more. Pets also benefit from being able to experience different environments and in this process pets develop skills such as problem-solving that can help them later in life.


The human-animal bond is a type of social bond that humans have with animals, characterized by emotional attachment and mutual care and support. This bond can help animals to live longer, healthier and happier lives.

The human-animal bond can be strengthened through interaction with animals, and taking steps to reduce human-animal conflict. Being a pet owner is a big responsibility, but it is well worth. Owning a pet have the power to provide a wide range of physical and mental health benefits and a faithful friend is always in our corner.

* Dr K Rashbehari Singh wrote this article for The Sangai Express
The writer is Member, Manipur State Veterinary Council, Imphal
and Retired Deputy Director (Extension Education),
Central Agricultural University, Imphal.
He can be reached at konjengbam09(AT)gmail(DOT)com
This article was webcasted on 16 March 2024 .

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