The Science Behind the Bond


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Being a pet owner is good for your heart. It’s been proven by scientific study, according to the American Heart Association, which has issued a scientific statement that pet ownership improves heart health. According to the AHA, pet owners have significantly lower systolic blood pressure than non-pet owners.

Another interesting scientific finding? Owning a cat makes you more likely to be alive one year after a heart attack. Non-cat owners had a 40 percent greater likelihood of death.

The heart health scientific facts are just a few of thousands collected by the Human Animal Bond Research Institute. Through science and advocacy, the institute is highlighting the vital role of companion animals in the health and well-being of individuals, families and communities.

Vet-Advantage spoke with HABRI Executive Director Steve Feldman about some of the organization’s research and initiatives, why they matter to all animal health industry stakeholders, and how veterinary practices and their business partners can use the research to cultivate deeper relationships with pet owners.
Vet-Advantage: Can you explain some of the key elements of the science behind the human-animal bond?

Steve Feldman: Positive human-animal interaction appears to be related to changes in physiological variables both in humans and animals, particularly dogs. This bond has been shown to influence levels of blood pressure, heart rate, and hormones correlated with well-being including cortisol, oxytocin, b-endorphin, prolactin, phenylacetic acid and dopamine.

Oxytocin, recognized for its role in bonding, socialization and stress relief, has been linked to many of the positive psychological effects of human-animal interaction.

Some of the most widely cited research findings focus on the benefits of human-animal interaction for reducing stress and depression in survivors of trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), for improving communication and social skills in children with Autism Spectrum Disorder, and in reducing blood pressure and heart rate.

Vet-Advantage: Why is the human-animal bond important to human wellness?

Feldman: Scientific research supports the human-animal bond for improving human health and wellness for people of all ages and health conditions. Human-animal interaction has been shown to improve child health and development, mental health and wellness, and healthy aging.

While advances in scientific research have been made, the role of a companion animal in a person’s life has also increased within the last few decades. Pet ownership in the U.S. has increased significantly. In 1988, 56 percent of U.S. Households said they had a pet. In 2017, that number has jumped to 68 percent. Furthermore, 98 percent of pet owners consider pets to be an important part of the family.

The expanded role of pets in our lives paired with the variety of benefits we receive from interacting with pets makes the health benefits of the human-animal bond so much more impactful and important.

Vet-Advantage: How can that knowledge strengthen veterinary-client relationships?

Feldman: From a HABRI survey of pet owners, we know that veterinarians are seen as trusted resources for information about the human-animal bond. In fact, virtually all pet owners (97%) have a favorable opinion of their veterinarian.
Discussing the science of the human-animal bond can strengthen the veterinary-client relationship. For instance:

  • 66 percent of pet owners (77 percent of millennials) would have a more favorable view of their veterinarian if they discussed the health benefits of the human-animal bond with them.
  • 61 percent of pet owners (74 percent of millennials) would be more likely to visit their veterinarian if they discussed the health benefits of the human-animal bond with them.

As the body of scientific research on the human-animal bond continues to grow, more pet owners are looking for ways to strengthen their relationship with their pets. Millennial pet parents, in particular, are looking for a veterinarian that can show they understand and support the human-animal bond.

Vet-Advantage: What are some of the tools put together to help promote the human-animal bond conversation?

Feldman: The Pet Effect Campaign, created in partnership with HABRI co-founder Zoetis, is a great resource for veterinarians to help communicate the message of the human-animal bond to their clients. HABRI provided the scientific evidence behind the campaign, which features fun videos, infographics, and other printable materials that veterinary practices can incorporate into their waiting and exam rooms to help start the conversation about the human-animal bond. For more information about The Pet Effect, please visit https://habri.org/the-pet-effect/

Vet-Advantage: Where is HABRI active on the public policy front? Why is advocacy important?

Feldman: HABRI is most active in supporting policies that help people who can benefit from access to companion animals. Most recently, HABRI is working to educated lawmakers about two pieces of legislation: The Pet and Women Safety Act and the Puppies Assisting Wounded Servicemembers Act.

The Pet and Women Safety Act would expand federal law to include protections for pets of domestic violence victims and establish a federal grant program that will help ensure that victims have access to safe shelters for their pets. Up to 65 percent of domestic violence victims and 48 percent of battered women remain in abusive homes out of fear for their pets. Most domestic violence shelters do not accommodate companion animals on site. This bill would provide necessary protection for domestic violence sufferers and their pets.

The Puppies Assisting Wounded Servicemembers Act directs the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to implement a program to provide service dogs to veterans with severe Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Results of a new study reveal that veterans suffering from PTSD exhibited better mental health and well-being on several measures if they had a service dog, including:

  • Lower overall symptoms of post-traumatic stress
  • Lower levels of depression
  • Higher levels of life satisfaction
  • Higher overall psychological well-being
  • Lower levels of social isolation and greater ability to participate in social activities
  • Higher levels of resilience
  • Higher levels of companionship
  • Less absenteeism from work due to health among those who were employed

HABRI envisions a world where the human-animal bond is embraced as an essential element of human wellness. While advancing the scientific research that supports pets for human health and well-being, advocating for pet-friendly policies will help put the research into practice.

Health Benefits of Pets
A reduced risk of cardiovascular disease wasn’t the only health benefit highlighted in the American Heart Association Scientific Statement. Among other benefits:

Positive influence on physical activity
Of all pets, dogs appear most likely to positively influence the level of human physical activity. Cross-sectional studies show that dog owners engage in more physical activity and walking and are more likely to achieve the recommended level of physical activity than nonowners of dogs. For example, data from an online survey of 5253 Japanese adults revealed that after controlling for age, sex, and socioeconomic status, dog owners engaged in significantly more walking and physical activity than nonowners and were 54% more likely to obtain the recommended level of physical activity.

In an Australian study that controlled for sociodemographic, neighborhood, social environmental, and intrapersonal factors reported that dog owners engaged in significantly more minutes per week of physical activity (322.4 versus. 267.1, P<0.001) and walking (150.3 versus 110.9, P<0.001) and were 57 percent more likely to meet the recommended level of physical activity than nonowners.

Dog walking linked to lower incidence of obesity
Dog walking, as opposed to pet or dog ownership, appears to be associated with a lower incidence of obesity, according to the AHA statement. “An observational epidemiological study of 2199 subjects noted significantly fewer obese (BMI >30 kg/m2) dog walkers (17%) compared with both owners who did not walk their dogs (28%) and nonowners (22%). In this study, dog walking was associated with a higher proportion of participants who met national recommendations for moderate to vigorous physical activity (53%) compared with those who had owned but did not walk their dog (33%) and dog nonowners (46%).”

Source: http://circ.ahajournals.org/content/early/2013/05/09/CIR.0b013e31829201e1

Human-Animal Bond Veterinary Certification
This year, the Human Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI) and the North American Veterinary Community (NAVC) launched a new certification course for practicing veterinarians, veterinary nurses and veterinary practice managers – Human-Animal Bond Certified.

Through a series of online modules assembled by experts in the field of human-animal interaction science, veterinarians, veterinary nurses and veterinary practice managers can now develop a formal understanding of the research demonstrating the health benefits of pet ownership and human-animal interaction, and learn how best to use that knowledge in the practice of veterinary medicine.

“Human-Animal Bond Certified will become the new gold standard for veterinarians looking to engage their clients in a meaningful and effective way,” said Tom Bohn, CEO of NAVC. “Through an easy online interface that can be completed at an individualized pace, the Certification will support every aspect of a veterinary practice, from better client dialogue and compliance to improved financial performance.”

“NAVC is a great partner for HABRI, combining human-animal bond science with an unparalleled educational experience for participants in the course,” said Steven Feldman, HABRI Executive Director. “This certification will help veterinarians, veterinary nurses and practice managers understand the science of the human-animal bond, using that knowledge to strengthen client relationships, improve animal care and boost practice wellness.”

According to a recent HABRI survey of pet owners, veterinarians are a trusted resource for scientific information on the human health benefits of pets, and vets have an opportunity to further strengthen their relationships with pet owners. When 2,000 pet owners were educated about the human health benefits of pet ownership:

  • 92% said they were more likely to maintain a pet’s health, including keeping up with vaccines and preventive medicine
  • 89% said they were more likely to maintain a pet’s health, including regular checkups with a veterinarian
  • 88% said they were more likely to provide a pet with higher quality nutrition
  • 51% said they were more likely to purchase pet health insurance
  • 62% said they were less likely to skip visits to the veterinarian
  • 89% said they were more likely to take better care of a pet

To assemble the course material, HABRI and the NAVC convened a group of highly-qualified veterinarians, researchers and academics, many of whom have helped advance our understanding of just how much pets improve our health and well-being through their own research.

The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) was a key contributor, serving as a Founding Educational Partner for the certification.

“Research has shown the benefits of the human-animal bond, especially in the areas of human wellness, depression and PTSD,” said Dr. Janet Donlin, chief executive officer of the AVMA. “We also know that the majority of pet owners value their veterinarian more when we talk about the benefits of the human-animal bond. So it’s a win-win for all – the human-animal bond is beneficial for humans, animals and the profession. And this certificate program is critical to deepening our understanding and application of those benefits. We’re thrilled to be a founding educational partner for the Human-Animal Bond Certification Program.”

For more information about the Human-Animal Bond Certification, visit https://navc.com/human-animal-bond-certification/