Dr. Boatright is a 2013 graduate of the University of Pennsylvania. She currently works as a small animal general practitioner and emergency clinician in western Pennsylvania at NVA Butler Veterinary Associates and Emergency Center. Her clinical interests include feline medicine, surgery, internal medicine, and emergency. As a freelance writer and speaker, Dr. Boatright enjoys educating veterinary students and colleagues about communication, team building, and the unique challenges facing recent graduates. Outside of the clinic, she is active in her state and local VMAs and serves on the VBMA Alumni Committee. In her spare time, she enjoys running and spending time with her husband, son, and three cats.Read Articles Written by Kate Boatright
We brought Maggie home on my mother’s last day of radiation treatment for breast cancer. Maggie was a 12-week-old golden retriever puppy who my mom credits with playing a central role in her recovery, both physically and mentally. For weeks after coming home, the pair could be found snuggling on the couch every evening as my mom recovered from her treatments and Maggie recovered from kennel cough. The close bond they formed during Maggie’s puppyhood lasted throughout her 14 years with our family.
Their relationship is a classic example of the human-animal bond (HAB)—the “dynamic relationship between people and animals that each influences the psychological and physiological state of the other.”1 Veterinary professionals play a key role in nurturing this bond and promoting its benefits for both clients and patients.
Benefits of the Human-Animal Bond
Pet ownership benefits physical, mental, and emotional health in humans of all ages. The Human Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI) supports scientific investigations into the benefits of this bond and is a centralized source of current research. Studies have shown numerous physical health benefits of pet ownership, most notably an increase in physical activity and decreased risk of cardiovascular disease, particularly for dog owners.2 Three-quarters of pet owners have reported improved mental health and half have reported improved physical health as a result of pet ownership.3
Most pet owners will share how their pet has supported their mental health, even without the stress of a physical ailment. Courtney Mooney, a former accountant and current veterinary student at the University of Pennsylvania, shared that her pets played a central role in her own mental health as she struggled with burnout in her previous profession. She recognizes that “while [veterinarians] are suffering from burnout, we are also helping to nurture the human-animal bond for people in other professions who are suffering from burnout as well.” Beyond supporting wellbeing, interactions with animals have also been shown to support those living with long-term mental health conditions, including depression and anxiety, and reduce loneliness.4
In light of the social isolation experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic, it should not be surprising that pet ownership has increased, with 11 million U.S. homes welcoming a new pet in 2020.5 Of new pet owners during the pandemic, nearly 60% of people sought a pet for companionship and one-third to avoid or alleviate depression.5 Pets provided companionship and a sense of hope while decreasing anxiety and boredom throughout the pandemic.5
The benefits of the HAB go both ways, with pets benefiting as well. People who are educated on the health benefits of pet ownership are more likely to maintain their pet’s health through regular preventive care, high-quality nutrition, and regular veterinary visits.3
The Role of the Veterinarian
Because of their integral role in maintaining the health of companion animals, veterinary professionals have a unique responsibility to help nurture the HAB between a pet and owner by addressing health concerns that may strain the relationship and educating pet owners on the benefits of this bond. Listening is one of the most important things that we can do to support the HAB between our clients and patients. When we take the time to listen to our clients, we will better understand the bond they have with their pets. When we hear what our clients are telling us about their limitations—financially, physically, and emotionally—we can design the best possible treatment plan for each individual client and patient.
There are times when owners must choose between spending several hundred dollars on diagnostics and treatments for their pet and paying their bills. For an owner who is closely bonded to their pet, they may forego their own basic needs to provide their pet with the recommended care. These financial strains have become more common during the pandemic, resulting in increased stress of pet owners.5 Veterinarians are incredibly resourceful and can often find ways to meet both the patient’s medical needs and the client’s financial ones. We must learn to embrace the idea of a spectrum of care to best serve our clients and patients.
Additionally, we must be mindful of the strains that our treatments can place on the pet-owner relationship. Oral medications can be difficult to administer to pets, especially cats, and owners may struggle with compliance due to their pet’s lack of cooperation. Other treatments, such as applying ear medications, can be painful for the pet. Asking owners to give oral medication multiple times a day or treat a painful ear topically at home may result in a pet that hides from, or even bites and scratches, their owner. These incidents are physically and emotionally painful for both owner and pet, eroding their bond. Taking the time to ask clients about their ability to medicate their pet and discussing the pros and cons of long-term medications can go a long way to improve client compliance and comfort with the treatment plan. Utilizing long-acting medications that are administered within the clinic, when appropriate, is another way to help preserve the HAB while still providing treatment.
The emotional limitations of clients often come to the forefront of conversations around end-of-life care and decision making. It is often during this time that we learn a pet is the last living link to a beloved family member who passed away or the role the pet has played in supporting the owner’s physical and mental health, even sometimes keeping them alive. By acknowledging this deep relationship, we can better connect with clients during these difficult conversations. Only by remaining mindful of the HAB can we counsel our clients to make the best possible decision for their pet and their family in these difficult situations.
Learn More About the Human-Animal Bond
Veterinarians see the close bond between pets and owners daily and understand the importance of this bond for both pet and human health. The benefits of the HAB are undergoing continuous study, and veterinarians should help to educate owners on the health benefits of pet ownership.
In a 2016 survey of pet owners, over 60% of respondents stated they would be more likely to visit the veterinarian and have a more favorable view of their veterinarian if they discussed the health benefits of the HAB during their appointment.3
For those who want to learn more, communicate with with pet owners more effectively, and improve practice profitability, HABRI and the NAVC offer a Human-Animal Bond Certification for veterinarians and team members (navc.com/human-animal-bond-certification). This program teaches the science behind the bond and how to communicate the benefits of pet ownership to clients.
Embracing the bond between pets and their owners will improve public health and practice profitability by bonding clients more closely to the practice that understands and nurtures the important role pets play in our daily lives.
- Purdue University. Center for the Human-Animal Bond. vet.purdue.edu/chab/about.php. Accessed February 24, 2021.
- Levine GN, Allen K, Braun LT, et al. Pet ownership and cardiovascular risk: A scientific statement from the American Heart Association. Circulation. 2013;127(23):2353–2363.
- HABRI. Survey: pet owners and the human-animal bond. habri.org/2016-pet-owners-survey. Accessed March 2, 2021.
- HABRI. Mental health research. habri.org/research/mental-health/#mental-health. Accessed March 1, 2021.
- MARS Petcare. Pets in a pandemic: better cities for petsTM 2020 report. bettercitiesforpets.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/2020-Better-Cities-For-Pets-Report-Mars-Petcare-FINAL.pdf. Accessed
March 2, 2021.