27 June 2017 - Companion animals have always been an integral part of society, but the contributions that they make to human wellbeing, in terms of physical, mental, social and economic benefits are only just starting to be fully appreciated.
The importance of this human-companion animal bond was explored, on 21 June, at the Royal Veterinary College (RVC) at the 6th CABI RVC Symposium on Animal Welfare and Behaviour. The Symposium highlighted the intrinsic link between human and animal welfare and the need to convey positive messages to key stakeholders in animal and human health about the many ways in which companion animals enrich our lives.
Professor Daniel Mills, from the University of Lincoln, opened by describing the strong lifelong bond that owners have with their pets, with 99% of owners viewing their pet as ‘part of the family’. He said that pets are often viewed as a luxury, but the benefits they can bring to human mental and physical health are underestimated. He made reference to the report, Companion Animal Economics*, published by CABI, in which he and fellow experts estimated that pet ownership in the UK may reduce use of the National Health Service (NHS) to the value of £2.45 billion/year. An important point to consider, he noted, is that the human-animal bond depends on responsible pet ownership; physically, socially and mentally healthy pets are a reflection of a healthy society.
Dr Sandra McCune, from Waltham Centre for Pet Nutrition, elaborated on other studies investigating the impact of companion animals on human health and wellbeing. These include boosting self-esteem and social skills in children, increasing physical activity and lowering obesity among dog-walkers and creating social support networks among pet owners. She reiterated the message that animal welfare is an important component of the human animal bond, and understanding animal behaviour is key to a good human-companion animal relationship.
Using examples from his work with the charity Dogs for Good, Peter Gorbing explained how dogs make a significant difference to the lives of many people facing various challenges. For example, their assistance dogs support people with a range of disabilities, enabling greater independence and reducing reliance on care. Animal assisted intervention is also being used to enrich lives within the wider community, for example in schools, for children with autism, and in care homes. He said that more could be done to promote the human animal bond, and highlighted the problem of people being separated from their pets due to accommodation issues.
The links between companion animal and human obesity were considered by Professor Alex German, from the University of Liverpool. He described how obese pets often have overweight owners. His studies have shown that owners of obese dogs typically have very strong relationships with their animals, and that food is often an important part of that bond, being used to train or treat the dogs. Changing owner behaviour can be very challenging; he recommends educating owners of new puppies to help prevent the problem.
Dr Siobhan Abeyesinghe, from the RVC, explored human attitudes to animal welfare and how our beliefs and knowledge can impact the human animal bond. Owners perceiving inherited diseases in purebred dogs (e.g. flat-faced breeds such as Pugs) as ‘normal for the breed’ illustrates how challenging it can be to change attitudes to welfare, she noted.
In the lively panel discussion chaired by Martin Whiting of RVC, the speakers agreed that companion animals bring benefits to owners in improvements to physical and mental health, and that, once established, the human animal bond can be life changing so that both the owner and the animal get more out of life.
*Companion Animal Economics: The Economic Impact of Companion Animals in the UK by Sophie Hall, Luke Dolling, Katie Bristow, Ted Fuller and Daniel S. Mills. CABI, Wallingford, UK, ISBN: 9781786391728, published December 2016.
Pictured above from left: Professor Danny Mills – University of Lincoln, Dr Siobhan Abeyesinghe- RVC, Professor Alex German - University of Liverpool, Robert Taylor - CABI, Dr Sandra McCune - Waltham Centre for Pet Nutrition, Peter Gorbing- Dogs for Good, Dr Martin Whiting - RVC
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