The oldest evidence of the human/animal bond is found with a 12,000-year-old human skeleton in Israel with its hand resting on the skeleton of a 6-month-old wolf pup. Curiously, our long relationship with companion animals has only recently given rise to a field of study called anthrozoology – the study of human-animal interactions.
When you consider how long we’ve had pets in our lives, and how important they are to us it’s amazing the study of human-animal interactions is so new. Researchers have only just begun to explore this wonderful relationship.
Jeffrey Masson, author of “The Dog Who Couldn’t Stop Loving (How Dogs Have Captured Our Hearts for Thousands of Years),” opines that the human capacity for love, sympathy, empathy and compassion may actually have developed as a result of our long association with dogs.
Dr. Ann Berger, a researcher at the National Institute of Health (NIH) Clinical Center in Bethesda, Md., says “The bond animals and humans have is part of our evolution, and it’s very powerful.”
Dr. James Griffin, a scientist at NIH’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, says, “There are health benefits to owning pets, both in terms of psychological growth and development, as well as physical health benefits.”
A NIH research study found that when children are asked who they talk to when they are upset, the most common answer is their pet – demonstrating the importance of pets as a source of comfort and developing empathy. Therapists and researchers also report that children with autism are sometimes better able to interact with pets, and this may help in their interactions with people.
Many studies suggest pets can help improve our cardiovascular health. One NIH study involving 421 adults who had suffered heart attacks found that dog owners were significantly more likely to be alive a year later than were those who did not own dogs, regardless of the severity of the heart attack.
Another study looked at 240 married couples. Those who owned a pet were found to have lower heart rates and blood pressure, whether at rest or when undergoing stressful tests, than those without pets. Pet owners also seemed to have milder responses and quicker recovery from stress when they were with their pets than with a spouse or friend.
One NIH investigation looked at more than 2,000 adults and found dog owners who regularly walked their dogs were more physically active and less likely to be obese than those who didn’t own or walk a dog. Another NIH study followed more than 2,500 older adults, ages 71-82, for 3 years. Those who regularly walked their dogs walked faster and longer each week than others who didn’t walk regularly. Older dog walkers also had greater mobility inside their homes than others in the study.
Man’s best friend may help you make more human friends too. Several studies have shown that walking with a dog leads to more conversations and helps you stay socially connected. Other studies have shown that people who have more social relationships tend to live longer and are less likely to show mental and physical declines as they grow older.
Several research teams are examining the benefits of bringing specially trained animals into clinical settings. Animal-assisted therapies are increasingly offered in hospitals and nursing homes nationwide and clinicians who watch patients interact with animals say they clearly see the benefits, including improved mood and reduced anxiety.
Your local animal shelter has the largest selection of mood enhancing, anxiety mitigating companion animals in your community. Isn’t it time you took advantage of the many health benefits that comes with adopting a pet?