Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Pets as Family: The Changing Human-Animal Bond


Pet Column for the week of April 24, 2006

Related information:

Services - Human-Animal Bond

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Kim Marie Labak
Information Specialist

Over the past few decades, many Americans have changed the way they value their relationships with their pets. Advanced veterinary services are in higher demand and the U.S. Department of Labor attributes this to a changing paradigm, as people view of pets as members of the family. People also are spending more money on toys, clothes, and furniture for their pets, making pet products and services a $30 billion-a-year industry.

Mary Kelm, assistant dean for student affairs at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine, explains that she receives more greeting cards during the holidays that include pets in the family photo, and she notices more friends and acquaintances that have professional portraits of their pets in their homes.

Why have family pets taken a bigger role in place in the family? Perhaps scientific proof that pets can improve our health helps us justify our pampering.

Research on human health has found that contact with animals can improve the health of the sick, the elderly, the mentally ill, and can elicit compassion from adults and juveniles convicted of violent crimes.

Erin Brennan, veterinary student at the UI College of Veterinary Medicine, coordinates a program in which veterinary students take their pets to visit nursing homes. "When you walk in the door with a cat or dog, you see a complete change in the seniors. They may be watching television or zoning out, but as soon as they see the pets, they become more social, and start smiling and talking." Brennan explains that the visits also help the students. "No matter how busy we may be with studying and exams, there are always students who go every week. It helps us get out and socialize, and our pets love the attention, too."

Kelm has visited juvenile detention centers with animals, and comments that the animals bring out a softer side of some of the teens she sees. "These kids are isolated from the outside world and from each other--they are not allowed to sit close to each other because of a suspected potential for violence. It's interesting to see how badly they want to hold and touch a cat and how gentle they are."

Aside from helping people with specials needs through visitation programs like these, pets can also benefit the average working Jane or Joe. Pet ownership has shown to reduce blood pressure and decrease stress levels. Kelm suspects that changing lifestyles have put more pressure and stress on the average family. "The double income family has become much more commonplace, and I think that has that has created so much stress within the family. As a result, animals have become one of our huge sources of comfort."

Cheryl Weber, licensed social worker and client counselor for the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana works with pet owners daily, and sees the impact pets have on their lives. "I see a blind woman whose labrador guide dog gives her independence and freedom. I see a divorced man whose tabby is his best friend. I see a woman fighting through breast cancer to continue to care for an abused dog she rescued. I see an elderly widow whose golden retriever takes her on daily walks and lessens the loneliness she feels since her husband died."

Weber also notes that as we have become a more mobile society, our support network of family and friends may not be as strong as that of earlier generations. Many people find companionship from their pets. "Quite simply, our relationships with animals are not as complicated as relationships with other human beings. A pet's love is often unconditional; they don't judge us, they don't criticize us." Companionship may be one of the main reasons why 58 percent of US households have a pet.

Because pets play such a huge role in our lives, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) established National Pet Week to celebrate the special bond people share with their pets. Veterinarians have long understood the human-animal bond which has existed for thousands of years. For more information on National Pet Week, which is May 7-13, 2006, visit http://www.avma.org/onlnews/javma/jan06/060101c.asp.