The relationship we share with animals is unique and powerful. Even before the advent of animal domestication, a mutually beneficial and dynamic bond has existed between animals and humans. Few can argue that the human-animal bond has profoundly influenced human culture, physiology and emotion as well as the innate biology and behavior of animals.
What exactly is the human-animal bond? It is defined as a connection between people and animals, domestic and wild. Those that study the bond between animals and humans are anthrozoologists and through their studies they have come to the conclusion that our love of animals is intrinsically linked to who we are as humans.
Without animals, we would not have made the transition from hunter-gatherers to an agrarian society. Animals adorn the walls of the oldest cave paintings at El Castillo cave in Spain and the Chauvet caves in France as well as parade across the oldest hieroglyphic papyrus scrolls.
The early documentation of animals signifies their importance to universal human culture. Every known human culture has featured animals in art, religious ceremonies or folklore to suit pedagogical need. Using animals in religious ceremonies or folklore suggests the advent of a very important human aspect of human cognition- anthropomorphism. Attributing human characteristics and motives to animals (anything with a face), allowed our ancestors to engage in increasingly sophisticated social exchanges with each other and allowed us to anticipate and manipulate the activities of other species. This feature of human cognition allowed us to figure out where a prey species might be headed or how to capture an ox by feeding it tasty forage in the right place and time.
Human anthropomorphosis with animals has evolved beyond the initial phases of domestication during which our greatest need was a source of high quality food. In our modern era, dogs, cats and other animals have been elevated above the food chain to the role of companions. Many consider pets essential for emotional, psychological and physical well-being.
How humans respond to animals, either by petting them or watching them has been well documented. The first treatments derived from the human-animal bond began in the late 18th century in York, England. Mentally ill patients where prescribed animal care on a farm which was hypothesized to facilitate their rehabilitation. Other physicians followed suit utilizing riding horses to treat neurological disorders in effort to improve motor control and alleviate depression.
Investigations to characterize the impact of animals on human physiology at the University of Pennsylvania found that when a human, regardless of age or gender strokes a dog they have profound psychological changes that concertedly act to reduce stress such as a decrease in blood pressure, heart rate, respiratory rate and an increase in an overall feeling of well being. Some researchers suggest that animals create a sense of being needed for their human companions that carries significant meaning for the elderly.
Today, the human-animal bond is being prescribed for a range maladies ranging from anxiety to depression, anorexia and ADHD. The therapeutic benefits of animals is associated with the observation that if we see an animal in a peaceful or restful state we may take this as a signal that we are also in a peaceful or restful state. Animals are routinely taken to assisted living homes to uplift the elderly and promote physical activity. Service dogs for individuals with anxiety and depression are becoming more abundant. Children whom have a classroom pet or are allowed to bring their own pet in are reported to have increased motivation while doing classroom activities.
Our cognitive association with animals has profoundly shaped our modern lives. An estimated 47% of American households own animals and of these 70% sleep with their pets. As we become more cognate of the intimate bond we share with animals it has the potential to further impact our life and promote novel expression of emotion and cognition.