Merck Manual

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Professional Version

Overview of the Human-Animal Bond

By

Mariko Yamamoto

, PhD, Department of Animal Sciences, Faculty of Life and Environmental Sciences, Teikyo University of Science;


Lynette A. Hart

, PhD, Department of Population Health and Reproduction, School of Veterinary Medicine, University of California, Davis

Medically Reviewed Jan 2022 | Modified Nov 2022

Companion animals are commonly considered to be family members, and "human-animal bond" has become a household term. More than half of all households in the US have at least one pet, with dogs and cats remaining the most popular species, although specialty and exotic animals continue to become more common as pets. Results of a 2016 study indicated that dogs were examined by a veterinarian more than twice as often as cats and that about half of cat owners did not obtain routine/preventive care for their cats, compared with 21% of dog owners.

Households with children are very likely to have pets; however, the proportion of pet owners without children is increasing. Approaches that involve the entire family are an important feature of successful veterinary practices. Older married couples without children are increasingly likely to acquire dogs. A 2018 study reported that the number of affluent dog owners had doubled in the previous decade, while the number of cat owners declined; however, ownership of cats was highest among owners who were unmarried, childless, female, or non-Hispanic White. The number of Hispanic pet owners increased sharply by 44%, approaching the proportion of pet ownership of non-Hispanic Whites.

With the growing awareness of the human-animal bond, the roles of animals in service and therapy are expanding into new areas and fill many of the same support functions that people do. Service dogs assist people who have various disabilities, including mobility, visual, and hearing impairments, as well as psychiatric disorders and autism. Dogs also can detect and alert people to impending seizures or abnormal blood glucose levels.

The human-animal bond field has also increased its focus on ensuring that animals receive adequate consideration and care. Albert Schweitzer’s concept of “reverence for life” has become a standard for making decisions about animals. Acknowledgment of the human-animal bond has become a cornerstone of veterinary practice, and evidence suggests that veterinarians who pay close attention to the various aspects of the human-animal bond are likely to thrive financially and to find their work enjoyable and rewarding.

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