Veterinarians play a vital part in maintaining a healthy human-animal bond. By doing so, we help improve our community’s overall health and well-being.
According to the Human Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI), “85 Million U.S. Households with pets enjoy the benefits of the human-animal bond.”1
What is the human-animal bond?
What comes to mind when you think of the human-animal bond (HAB)? Are you aware of how much research and interest exists in the healing powers of this bond?
During the COVID-19 pandemic, now more than ever, the relationships between pet and pet parent, zookeeper and zoo animal, horse and jockey, among others, have literally helped to save lives. I dare think where I would have been mentally and physically the past almost two years without my trusty canine companion; I know I am not alone.
The AVMA defines the HAB as a “mutually beneficial and dynamic relationship between people and animals that is influenced by behaviors essential to the health and well-being of both.”
This includes a variety of factors, including psychological, physical, and emotional interactions that occur among animals, people, and the environment; this being the epitome of One Health.2
As veterinarians, it is our duty to optimize the potentialities of interactions between mankind and animals. This role helps demonstrate the importance the HAB plays in our client’s individual health and community.2
HABRI’s research has shown that those individuals with pets save on health care costs. They report that pet ownership cost savings are upwards of $11.7 billion.1,3 This is an obvious benefit to society as a whole and to community and global health.
While reducing healthcare costs sounds great, economic benefits are only one measurable benefit. Previous research evaluated cardiovascular and mental health benefits. HAB research includes topics related to healthy aging, overall quality of life benefits, and most pertinent to the COVID-19 era, lessening the ill effects of social isolation and loneliness.1
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Known benefits of pets on human health
People like spending time with pets, from dogs to cats, to ferrets to birds, among others. Animals provide unconditional love, and they challenge us to care for others. The benefits go well beyond what is easy to put into words, helping humans at levels beyond conscious thought.
In addition to the general enjoyment many get from pets, Levine et al.4 enumerate several studies by various scientists globally that demonstrate various cardiovascular benefits of pet ownership.
Results are vast and show decreasing hypertension by lowering systolic pressures to lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels. Studies reveal that dog owners have better physical fitness parameters, including weight loss achievement, versus non-owners.
Gee and Mueller5 provide additional insight, demonstrating the benefits of pet ownership related to physical health and exercise, depression parameters, anxiety, and related behaviors pertinent to today’s climate, including social isolation and loneliness.
These studies show beneficial health benefits. The sheer amount of ongoing research helps further illustrate researchers’ recognition of the importance pets play above and beyond the simple companionship they provide.
What role do veterinarians play in maintaining the Human-Animal Bond?
Many have felt socially isolated and unconnected to the community during these tough pandemic times. A sense of social belonging is a known indicator of health. With the pandemic’s inflicted isolation, animals have allowed many to remain somewhat connected through their interactions with their pets.6
So, what does that mean for veterinarians? Now more than ever, veterinarians are tasked with maintaining pets’ health, the bridges of social connectedness.
We not only keep the individual pet healthy, but we can help to minimize environmental contamination from parasites by protecting our patients. We encourage exercise and activity for pets to maintain a good body condition.
For many, this leads to increased human activity and interactions. If not for my dog walking, I wouldn’t know half of my neighbors.
So, by maintaining the health of our patients, regardless of species, we, in turn, help strengthen the HAB, and hopefully, improve the quality of life and health of both owner and pet alike.
Strengthen the Human-Animal Bond: Make recommendations that count!
Vaccinating pets, recommending monthly flea, tick, and heartworm prevention, and maintaining appropriate body and muscle conditions should be standard discussions with clients. These go without saying. However, more and more owners expect additional suggestions. Owners look for fear-free assistance with fearful or anxious pets, and they seek out recommendations for training and nutrition.
What if you have a dog or cat that you dread coming in because they are challenging to handle physically? The role of a vet needs to go beyond just saying, “I can’t manage that fractious dog.”
Offer alternatives like at-home visits or pre-vet visit medication protocols such as gabapentin and trazodone. Work with the pet and the client. Offer happy visits, just to say hello. Give the dog or cat some treats, and send them on their way. Make your office a place to want to visit, not to fear.
Don’t simply write off the pet because they have anxiety and demonstrate fears with aggression. Inform pet owners of options and training that they can do at home. They can train to minimize the stress of various husbandry tasks such as nail trims, grooming, teeth brushing, even vaccine administration and blood draws.
While we cannot plan for everything, we can make the routine vet visits run more smoothly.
By allaying the pet’s fears, we improve the relationship between pet and pet parent. We also ensure that the pet will visit the vet more often when needed because concerns for behavior or fear don’t get in the way. Sure, emergencies happen but helping to improve the overall exchanges at regular visits is a step towards a happier pet-parent bond.
Fear-Free practices and Cooperative Care
Ensure your clinic and all coworkers appreciate the benefits of positive reinforcement and fear-free practices. Look into the Fear-Free Certification for your practice and promote it with pride. Many clients are aware of this certification and seek out practices that use it.
The fear-free initiative seeks to “prevent and alleviate fear, anxiety, and stress in pets by inspiring and educating the people who care for them.7” To me, fear-free is the epitome of what veterinarians need to do to improve quality of life and the HAB. But this is what you can do at your practice to ensure you and your staff are handling animals well. What can pet owners do at home?
Cooperative Care Training
There are a variety of positive reinforcement training methods out there. This includes clicker training, among others. Positive reinforcement training has been shown to improve the HAB.8
One training method this author wants to mention is Cooperative Care Training. Simply put, Cooperative Care uses positive training methods and allows the animal to consent to the activity. They can consent or walk away from anything you are doing, be it training a new cue or trying to cut the nails.
My own dog, Jasmine’s veterinary behavioralist, recommended it to me. She suggested a book by Deborah A. Jones, Ph.D., Cooperative Care: Seven Steps to Stress-Free Husbandry9. Additionally, there is a Facebook Group facilitated by the author.
Using cooperative care has been a blessing for my family. My dog, Jasmine, has generalized anxiety and inflammatory bowel disease. She had a non-surgical, fractured tibia at 18 weeks.
She healed and was ready to socialize again just in time for winter, followed by COVID-19 and social isolation. This isolation negatively affected humans and pets alike, including our family.
Cooperative Care allowed me to work with my dog on her terms. We have come so far, making strides regularly.
I successfully expressed anal glands at home with my husband simply holding her head in his hands, with no restraint. I give B12 injections weekly, with no restraint. The list goes on. But nothing makes me happier than the eager tail wag and the excitement she gets when I pull out the designated red “bucket” we use for training. She wants to learn and engage with me, and together our bond has strengthened 10-fold.
Inform clients that this training can be a tedious process, and there is no set pace at which milestones are achieved. They depend on the time put in and the pet. It can be used for any species and has been widely used in many zoos and conservation facilities worldwide.
Cooperative care can teach various species to accept the touching of multiple body parts, and present limbs for blood draws, among many things.
Why harp on this topic? How does it relate to the HAB? Providing your owners with tools they can use at home helps them improve their pets’ comfort level, behaviors, and well-being. This, in turn, helps strengthen their relationship with them and makes you look like the hero you should be.
Show your owners you understand pet behavior’s trials and tribulations, recognizing safety concerns at the vet office. Take that first step towards earning their trust and showing them that you know how much their relationship with their pet means to them.
Refer when appropriate
Regardless of the species, a client brings a pet to you because they trust your ability to have their best interest at heart.
Never be afraid to admit you cannot handle a case, patient, or situation. Always offer your clients a referral to a board-certified specialist, be it behavior, internal medicine, surgery, neurology, you name it.
When you refer, this doesn’t mean you admit to being less than you are. Value your skills, education, and training, but recognize your limitations. Own those limitations and think not of yourself but your patient and what is best for that pet.
Sometimes admitting a situation is above your comfort level provides you more respect than if you just kept throwing medications or diagnostics at the patient. Owners respect your opinion. Do not disappoint them by failing to offer them all that is available.
Protecting the Human-Animal Bond: One role out of many for veterinarians in a One Health framework
As veterinarians, we have a lot on our plates. Protecting something as valuable and robust as the HAB may cause some concern.
However, when you think about the global picture from a One Health lens, you can appreciate veterinarians’ role in protecting animals, humans, and the environment. Protecting the HAB is a small piece of that sizeable global puzzle but a precious one for all involved.
Erica Tramuta-Drobnis, VMD, MPH, CPH is the Founder & CEO ELTD of One Health Consulting, LLC, as well as a freelance writer, consultant, researcher, public health professional and small animal veterinarian.
More from IndeVets:
- HABRI. HABRI | The Human Animal Bond Research Institute. HABRI: The Human Animal Bond Research Institute. Published 2021. Accessed November 28, 2021. https://habri.org/
- The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). Human-animal bond. American Veterinary Medical Association. Published 2021. Accessed December 11, 2021. https://www.avma.org/one-health/human-animal-bond
- HABRI. Pet Ownership Saves $11.7 Billion in Health Care Costs. HABRI: The Human Animal Bond Research Institute. Published December 15, 2015. Accessed December 11, 2021. https://habri.org/pressroom/20151214/
- Levine GN, Allen K, Braun LT, et al. Pet Ownership and Cardiovascular Risk. Circulation. 2013;127(23):2353-2363. doi:10.1161/CIR.0b013e31829201e1
- Gee NR, Mueller MK. A Systematic Review of Research on Pet Ownership and Animal Interactions among Older Adults. Anthrozoös. 2019;32(2):183-207. doi:10.1080/08927936.2019.1569903
- Hodgson K, Barton L, Darling M, Antao V, Kim FA, Monavvari A. Pets’ Impact on Your Patients’ Health: Leveraging Benefits and Mitigating Risk. J Am Board Fam Med. 2015;28(4):526-534. doi:10.3122/jabfm.2015.04.140254
- Fear Free. What is Fear Free & Why Is It Important? Fear Free Pets. Published 2021. Accessed December 11, 2021. https://fearfreepets.com/about/what-is-fear-free/
- American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB). Position Statement on Humane Dog Training. Accessed December 11, 2021. https://avsab.ftlbcdn.net/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/AVSAB-Humane-Dog-Training-Position-Statement-2021.pdf
- Jones DA. Cooperative Care: Seven Steps to Stress-Free Husbandry. Deborah A. Jones; 2018.