The Importance of the Human-Animal Bond

There’s some indication that the human-animal bond has affected evolution.

Human-animal bond mimics parent-infant relationships.

The human-animal bond is a metaphor for the roles animals play in our lives.

Photo by Fotolia/Andres Rodriguez

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Explore the nature of the bond humans have with animals in Our Faithful Companions (Alpine Publications, 2014). Aubrey H. Fine illustrates the ties we form with these beings that are vital to our health and theirs. Within the past thirty years, animals have been employed by psychologists in animal-assisted therapy (AAT) thanks to research suggesting that our relationships with them help us cope with emotional stress. In the following excerpt from chapter one, Fine uses this scientific data along with personal stories to begin explaining the importance of the human-animal bond.

So what is what we call the human-animal bond? In many ways, the definition captures the spirit of the infant/parent bond, which is actually the reason why the term was originally developed. People like Leo Bustad, one of the founders of the Delta Society (now called Pet Partners), basically believed that when they looked at the relationship we have with other species of animals, in many ways what we see is a support system that parallels the infant-parent relationship. In another sense, the phrase “human-animal bond” is a metaphor for the roles animals play in our lives.

Bill McCulloch, DVM, another Delta Society founder, explains a defining moment in 1959 early in his small-animal veterinary practice in Des Moines, Iowa. He recalls that when he left his veterinary practice to pursue a masters degree in public health at the University of Minnesota, a client who owned a Beagle came into the hospital to give him a present. “What they said was to be the seed of my eventual interest and efforts in the human-animal bond: ‘Dr. McCulloch, you know that my husband and I could not have children and our Beagle was like a child and member of our family to us. Somehow, we sensed that you understood this attachment. We love you for that!’” In essence, Bill understood the impact of the bond.

While he may have emulated these feelings as a veterinarian, Bill’s understanding of the importance of the bond was established as a young child. He grew up on his grandparents’ farm in Minnesota in the late 1930s and 1940s, and his early life experiences helped form his impressions of what a veterinarian should be. His grandfather owned draft horses and never rode a tractor, even after a time when the family had three John Deeres on the property. He remembered with great emotion the day his granddad sold his two horses to a neighbor in the fall of 1994. “I saw tears in the old Swede’s eyes as the horses left his land. Although they may have been draft horses to others, they were part of his life.”

It seems apropos that a graduate of Iowa State University (ISU) would develop this keen sensitivity of what it means to be a caring doctor. ISU is home to one of the most famous statues in veterinary medicine, called the Gentle Doctor. In fact, the statue reminds all of us about the compassion that is often present in a patient/doctor relationship. Bill often sat in front of this wonderful piece of art, perhaps not even realizing its message. It doesn’t take long to recognize that the image of the “gentle doctor” has been illuminated deep within his soul. Bill was the “gentle doctor” to that Beagle’s family; he understood the value of the dog to its family, not because of his veterinary training, but because of a life built deeply on understanding the principles of the bond.

Today, Bill’s story is increasingly more common. There is a new interdisciplinary field called anthrozoology that highlights the study of the relationships between humans and animals. One key area in the field is studying the bond.

Today, there are a number of ways to define this unique relationship. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), “the human-animal bond is a mutually beneficial and dynamic relationship between people and other animals that is influenced by behaviors that are essential to the health and well-being of both. This includes, but is not limited to, emotional, psychological, and physical interactions with people, other animals, and the environment.” This is amazing when we think of the history of humans and companion animals, because this is a very long relationship. Historically, the human/canine relationship goes back almost 12,000 years and the human/feline relationship 9,500 years. Gregory Berns, director of the Emory University Center for Neuropolicy and the lead investigator of the center’s dog project, posits that the close relationship between humans and dogs may have an evolutionary basis. He explains, “The dog’s brain represents something special about how humans and animals came together. It’s possible that dogs have even affected human evolution. People who took dogs into their homes and villages may have had certain advantages. As much as we made dogs, I think dogs probably made some part of us, too.”

The relationship between humans and dogs is especially strong regarding tasks that involve social cognition. In fact, Brian Hare suspects that, in this area, the similarities between dogs and humans are even closer than between humans and other more closely related species such as the great apes. Like Berns, Hare hypothesizes that, over centuries, dogs and humans have shared “convergent cognitive evolution” that has resulted in mutually inheritable traits, particularly the ability to reach across species in order to cooperate and communicate in an almost human-like manner. Humans, too, have benefited from this relationship as our relationship with canine companions has shaped our own preferred methods of communication and even cognition.

So what is it that has caused us to become closer to these other species of animals? I believe one of the most critical aspects in this evolution is a growing respect and understanding that our companion animals are sentient beings with emotions and thoughts. Once we accept this position, it changes the way many of us view these animals. Let’s scrutinize the American Veterinary Medical Association’s definition at this point and identify a few of the factors that contribute to and strengthen this relationship.

The first factor is the interpretation, or sometimes the misinterpretation, of certain behaviors that are human-like. Again, we return to the anthropomorphic position that suggests our relationships with animals have these human qualities. For some of us, our animal companions are humans, although we're going to need to talk about the fact that in some ways this may not be the healthiest way to look at this relationship.

The second factor is the animal’s dependence on its human counterpart, which has probably become an even more significant contributor to the relationship. When people have pets, they begin to appreciate and recognize the importance of that pet in their daily lives and how dependent that animal is on them. For those who have really become connected, there is a sense of pride that they have accepted the responsibility. Perhaps one of the biggest changes that has occurred in the last 50 to 100 years is our understanding of our relationship with other species. Rather than viewing the relationship as a utilitarian role, our animals now play more of a companionship role. Understanding this change is crucial, because we recognize that we don’t just take from animals. They are not subordinates; rather, they are companions. The key concept is that many of us recognize our pets as friends and members of our own family, and over the years, we have seen these pets leave the backyard and garage to enter our homes and bedrooms and really become an integral part of our family life.

The third factor pertains to our daily routines. The companion animal's residence in the home allows both humans and animals to share daily routines. It’s not uncommon for all of us to walk with our companion animals and to do things with them that enhance and even enrich our daily lives.

Finally, for some people, companion animals provide a sense of security. They serve not only as protectors of the home but also as a sympathetic ear in the late evening.


This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Our Faithful Companions: Exploring the Essence of Our Kinship With Animals by Aubrey H. Fine, and published by Alpine Publications, 2014.