There’s no denying the human-animal connection. Indeed, pets play a vital role in human lives. From seeing-eye dogs and therapy dogs to canines trained to detect seizures or assist patients with physical recovery—companion animals have a positive effect on our wellbeing and quality of life.

In fact, there are many other articles and studies that explore the human-animal connection.

In an article for The Delta Society, Dr Kersti Seksel (registered veterinary specialist in behavioural medicine, and Delta Society board member) says that the benefits of pet ownership can divided into three different areas: physical health, psychological health and social health.1

1. Pets and physical health

A study by Handlin et al (published online, September 2018), looked at whether repeated visits (twice a week over a six-week period) by a therapy dog to nursing homes might affect the elderly residents’ systolic blood pressure and heart rate.2

The project involved a ‘dog study’ where two researchers and a therapy dog with a handler visited the residents at three nursing homes. In addition, a ‘control study’ was carried out. This saw the two researchers alone visiting the residents at three different nursing homes.

In the dog study, participants’ heart rate decreased significantly. While participants who had high systolic blood pressure to begin with saw a decrease in both systolic blood pressure and heart rate.

In contrast, participants in the control study saw little change in heart rate and systolic blood pressure.

The National Centre for Health Research notes a similar study that supports the human-animal connection. It found that when people are under stress, having their dog in the room lowered blood pressure better than if they took a popular type of blood pressure medication (ACE inhibitor).3

In addition to this, a recent study discovered that exposure to animals in infancy can reduce a person’s risk of developing allergies (asthma, allergic rhinoconjunctivitis, or eczema) in later childhood. 4

The Swedish study, which involved 1,200 children, found that one-third of the children in families who had no pets went on to develop allergies. While in comparison none of the children in families with five or more cats and dogs developed allergies.

2. Pets and psychological health

Service or therapy dogs have long been recognised for their amazing ability to assist people with sensory of physical disabilities. However, the associations between pets and mental health are becoming increasingly recognised.

It’s difficult to feel lonely or isolated when you have a pet by your side. Having a dog is a good reason to get outdoors and do some exercise while breathing in the fresh air.

Unlike with human relationships, there’s no pressure to talk to your pet. They provide acceptance without judgement and will love you unconditionally.

Anyone who owns a pet will tell you the emotional benefits they get from stroking their cat or cuddling their dog. Yet it’s only in recent years that the link between animals and mental health has come into the limelight.

Rocochet’s role in PTSD

A colleague of mine is a dog owner and trainer. Her dog Ricochet has helped numerous veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to live a happier and more fulfilled life.

Judy explains, “Panic attacks can be a huge part of life for veterans with PTSD. Anxiety can play a big role and can come with feelings of aggression, making ‘normal’ life difficult to cope with.

Ricochet has the ability to recognise when an anxiety attack is coming; she can sense it and will respond in a number of different ways to help mitigate the symptoms.

“Eye contact is an easy way for a dog to help calm a veteran’s anxiety. Eye contact releases the oxytocin hormone, which is known as the ‘hug’ hormone. As such, eye contact can reduce anxiety. It’s a simple, often un-noticed, attempt by the dog to assist.

Face licking is another common way that dogs try to reduce the stress of their handler. Petting and maintaining body contact with the handler is something else dogs do. I see Ricochet put her paw on the foot of veterans to maintain contact and lessen their anxiety.

“A few years ago Ricochet was assigned to army veteran and retired staff sergeant Randall Dexter. After two tours in Iraq as a combat medic, Randall had been diagnosed with PTSD along with a brain injury. He was on a list of medications and had contemplated suicide.

Ricochet was able to sense possible psychological triggers for Randall and alert him to these before they resulted in a full-blown anxiety attack. This made him feel much calmer and gave him a greater sense of security and self-confidence when out in the community. These are things most of us take for granted but for veterans suffering from PTSD, a simple everyday task such as going to the shops can be extremely stressful.

“I believe every dog has the capacity to alert and respond to PTSD symptoms. The problem is that most of us don’t listen to our dogs. We often think they’re misbehaving, when in reality they are just trying to communicate with us. Ricochet’s communication is very obvious, but most dogs are a lot more subtle.”

3. Pets and social health

There’s no denying pets are social enablers. They are a great way to break the ice, start a conversation, meet other local dog owners and forge new friendships.

To explore the impact of pets on friendship formation and social connectedness Dr. Lisa Wood, associate professor at the University of Western Australia, and her colleagues conducted a telephone survey involving approximately 2,700 people.5

The results showed that pet owners were significantly more likely to get to know people in their neighbourhood than non-pet owners.

Their research suggests that pets can be a catalyst for many areas of human social relationships including incidental social interactions, getting to know people and formation on new friendships. 

From my own experiences, I too believe that pets act as a reliable conduit for social interaction. When I moved from Sydney to Perth I knew nobody. During those first few days I took my border terrier to the local park and met a woman who had the same breed. This led to a long conversation about children, work and life in general. It also sparked a really close friendship.

Don’t overlook the benefits of the human-animal connection

Dr Sam Kovac, Founder and CEO of Southern Cross Veterinary Clinic St Peters and Bellevue Hill, Sydney, believes animals have a significant role to play in making society a better place.

He says, “We are all so concerned with conflict, grief and material possessions. Pets don’t care about any of those things. Pets don’t care if you’re sick or well or how much money you have or how successful you are. It’s not just dogs—it’s all pets.

“Pets just want to be loved and looked after and in turn, they’ll love you forever. Plus they are instant mood lifters. Ever had a bad day and come home to find yourself covered in sloppy licks or a cat purring on your lap and forgotten what was bugging you in the first place?

“The genuine, unbridled love between families and their companion animals is the very best thing in the world and is vitally important. We need to strengthen that bond, not chip away at it. The last thing we need is more regulations keeping humans and animals apart.

President of the Australian Veterinary Association (AVA), Dr Paula Parker says, “While pets can improve our health and wellbeing, it’s important to remember that the human-animal bond is a two-way street and we need to provide the same benefits to our pets by ensuring we properly care for their health and welfare.”