Part 2: Understanding the interface between humans and animals

9 Human Interaction with Companion Animals

<h2>Authors: McDuffee, L.A.</h2>

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After reading this chapter you should be aware of:
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Human interaction with companion animals
<li>List the potential benefits of companion animals to human health: cardiovascular, exercise, mental health, social capital, service, and therapy</li>
<li>Explain possible negative health aspects of living with companion animals: zoonosis, parasites, the burden of care; grief</li>
<li>Explain negative effects of pets on the environment/planet: CO2 emissions from the production of pet food, feces, plastic bags of feces, loss of biodiversity, competition for food</li>
<li>Disadvantages to human health – feces, methane and carbon dioxide, predation leading to loss of biodiversity.</li>

Human Interaction with Companion Animals

In the Anthropocene, most vertebrate animals live in captivity as livestock or companion animals (Bovenkirk). North America is the world’s leading country in pet-keeping, having over 300 million pets, which is four times the number of children. Approximately 58 % of Canadian households own at least one cat or dog, and in 2020 the dog population was estimated at 7.7 million while the cat population was estimated at 8.1 million. (CAHI). In many households dogs and cats are considered important companions for family members and indeed may be referred to as “a member of the family”(Silcox; AVMA 2012). Other animals can be beloved pets and have similar importance in the lives of humans; however, most of the literature focuses on the most common pets which are cats and dogs.

There are numerous positive health effects reported for pet owners. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of pets promoting social capital in our lives improving our quality of life and mental health (from CAHI)., Wood:Social capital and pet ownership? ).

Healthy pets may lead to healthy humans in other ways as well. In terms of physical activity, adults with dogs take 25% more steps per day than adults without dogs, and children with dogs are significantly more active than children without them (Owen et al. 2010). There is evidence that dog and cat owners were less likely to be obese and more likely to report excellent health (Utz 2014), and dog owners got more exercise, were fitter, and were seen less often by doctors than non-owners (Heady, Na, & Zheng, 2008).

Cardiovascular benefits have been reported for pet owners (Beck and Katcher). In a benchmark study in the 80s pet owners discharged from a coronary care unit had better outcomes compared to nonowners and this was attributed to the social support provided by pets (Freidman, E 1980). Subsequently, other similar studies reported that a prospective study found that dog ownership was associated with an increased likelihood of 1-year survival after a myocardial infarction, and dog ownership could be considered an independent predictor of survival (Friedmann &Thomas, 1995). Further evidence has shown that that pet owners had slightly lower systolic blood pressures, plasma cholesterol, and triglyceride values than non–pet owners  (Anderson, Reid, and Jennings (1992).

Health research into chronic pain suggests that dogs may indirectly improve their owners’ ability to cope with, manage, and live with chronic pain by providing emotional, social, and mental health benefits. (Carr).  However, the benefits may only occur specifically with people who actively use human–animal interactions as a pain-coping mechanism, and care should be taken before recommending companion-animal ownership to all persons suffering from chronic pain (Bradley & Bennet)

Aside from COVID 19 isolation promoting the ownership of pets, previous reports showed that companion animals provided psychological benefits to pet owners with particular benefits to those in one-person households (Antonacopoulos & Pychyl 2010). Female university students were less likely to report being lonely and depressed as a benefit of animals in their room. Psychological effects of pets include a feeling of being needed, and a feeling of well being which were in part a result of increased social interactions between people with dogs such as meeting at a dog park and positive social effects from positive comments and attention by people who are drawn to pets in the community (Wells, 2009).

Other impacts that pets have on wellbeing of humans include alleviation of highly stressful life occurrences such as divorce and death in the family, alleviation of depression and anxiety, and these effects were shown to extend to all members in the household (Lewis, Krägeloh, & Shepherd, 2009). Other studies have shown positive effects of pets on childhood development and healthy aging ((Beck & Katcher). (See SIlcox and add silcox as ref in above statements)

These studies show evidence of the positive impact that pets have on wellbeing. In fact, in several countries pet ownership has been shown to result in savings to the national health program. (in Fine: Understanding Our Kinship with Animals: Input for Health Care Professionals Interested in the Human–Animal Bond Aubrey H.Fine1Alan M.Beck?)

Domestic animals also provide benefits to human health when trained as service and therapy animals. Service animals are trained to provide specific medical care or support to a person with physical, mental or emotional disabilities and reside with that person, while Therapy animals work with more than one person and reside with a handler or at the facility where they work. The best known example of assistance animals is the Guide dog which is highly trained to guide humans with impaired vision. The success of Guide dogs as “adaptive technology” led to the training of dogs to provide other services including hearing, mobility, medical alert needs and many others; and the success with dogs led to training of other species as service animals such as guide ponies and service monkeys (Beckoff encyclopedia).

Therapy animals are not service animals. In animal assisted therapy a person trained in that therapy incorporates an animal into a prescribed therapeutic plan (Beckofff bk 1).  Well known examples of therapy animals include horses used in therapeutic riding programs or equine facilitated psychotherapy and dogs providing affection and comfort to people in hospitals, retirement homes, nursing homes, schools, hospices, disaster areas, and to people with learning difficulties.

Although there are amazing stories of the benefits from the human animal bond and from loyal service and therapy animals, it is important to be aware that the human animal bond (HAB) and its relationship with human mental health is complex (Hill), and the HAB may interfere with self care and contribute to noncompliance of health/medical recommendations. For instance, if there is a contradiction between pet care and self care the owner may choose to put the animal’s needs first resulting in noncompliance toward their own therapy. One example is a patient being referred to a rehabilitation facility that does not allow animals. This may not be a viable option to that owner due to lack of pet care and may lead to non compliance by the patient. This could have a critical effect on patient outcome (McNicholas; silcox?). There is also evidence that pets can have no effect or be associated with decreased health and morale in some human animal interactions (Scoresby, K.J, 2021; (Beck and Katcher). Therefore, it is essential to investigate the human animal interactions in the daily life of each patient. This will help the physician make recommendations for the patient which work for the entire family including the pet members.

It is also important to recognize that companion animals interacting and living with humans need to be healthy to provide health benefits. The appropriate veterinary care is important to promote a strong human animal bond. The HAB is defined by the American Veterinary Medical Association as “a mutually beneficial and dynamic relationship between people and animals that is influenced by behaviors essential to the health and wellbeing of both” (AVMA). Unhealthy pets con be a source of zoonotic diseases (Tarazona et al) transmitting infectious diseases to humans when they are not healthy themselves. More on health disadvantages… burden of care??

Moreover, it is also important to acknowledge that pets contribute to poor planetary health. The pet animal population accounts for 25 to 30 per cent of the environmental impact of meat consumption in the United States and are responsible for creating approximately 64 million tons of carbon dioxide each year. They also produce millions of tonnes of feces every year, much of it individually wrapped before being sent to landfills. Whereas feces left in the environment contaminate waterways with bacteria, viruses and parasites. (Suzuki report; Voith)

Cats can have an additional negative effect on the planetary health due to their agency as predators. Many owned cats are allowed to be free ranging, and there are many free ranging feral cats in most communities.  Free-ranging domestic cats impact biodiversity through predation, fear effects, competition, disease and hybridization. Prey items include a wide range of animals, including birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish, and invertebrates like butterflies and dragonflies. (Trowburst) Another indirect impact on the planet is competition with wild animals for food. For example, every mouse eaten by a cat cannot be eaten by a hawk. Domestic cats can also impact wildlife through cat-transmitted diseases like toxoplasmosis, rabies or feline leukemia (Voith).

Overall, there is much evidence of mental and physical health benefits from humans interacting with domestic animals; however, this is unique to each individual, including patients, and their circumstances. Questions about pets and interactions with animals should be a routine part of history taking for the medical record. (see See Silcox- recommendations for clinicians. supplemental) This information may be pertinent for both mental and physical health aspects of patients.  Conscientious and responsible pet ownership should be promoted to optimize health benefits from pets and to protect the planet. Patient-Centered Medical Homes should consider including a veterinarian as one of the health professionals on the team.




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