Veterinarian column: Celebrating pet companionship
Recently, someone told me that they adopted a dog a number of years ago to “replace her son that left home for college.” Of course she told me she was kidding because no one could replace her son, however, she felt the dog did significantly fill the void by giving her companionship.
It is widely known and accepted that pet companionship improves people’s lives. Benefits that have been documented include improved heart health, lowered blood pressure, slower heart rates, reduced stress and anxiety, fewer doctor visits, enhanced and increased social interactions with people, and reduced levels of depression.
While current scientific research has identified and continues to define health benefits of pet companionship, appeal of animal companionship has deep historical roots. It is estimated that the domestication of the ancestor of modern dogs occurred 12,000-14,000 years ago. Cats are thought to have begun living with humans about 8,000 years ago. The common assumption has been that domestication of dogs and cats occurred because they performed useful functions such as assisting with hunting, guarding, herding and elimination of mice and other small prey that were considered pests. However, there is archaeological evidence from 12,000 years ago that implies that even in the beginning the human-animal bond was more than just a working relationship.
The nobility and ruling classes of many societies are known for their pet ownership. For example, the Egyptian pharaohs are frequently shown in murals with pet companions. Chinese emperors and Greek and Roman nobility are also known to have kept pet companions. During the classical Greek period, dog breeding flourished.
Puppy selection, naming and training were of significant importance. Dogs of young Greek aristocrats are shown wearing collars attached to leashes and accompanying their owners. In Athens, children were given small dogs as pets. Other types of pets including birds, roosters, ducks, geese, hares, goats and fawns were also kept as pets in ancient civilizations.
During the Middle Ages in Europe, pets were popular among the aristocracy. Noble ladies kept lap dogs while the noble men focused on hunting hounds and falcons. Hunting with hounds was considered important as a symbol of power and status. This led to the development of dog breeds specifically for pursuing quarry.
Unfortunately, during the Middle Ages, there was a growing movement against pet ownership. There was fear that pet ownership was associated with pagan worship. This reached a peak during the Inquisition. The witch trials of the 16th and 17th centuries also focused on associations with animals. Ironically, the accused tended to be elderly and socially isolated women who kept animals for companionship. As fears of witchcraft declined, interest in pets regained popularity.
Pet ownership was not generally accepted until the end of the 17th century; becoming common in the middle classes at the end of the 18th century. Our current pattern of pet ownership is likely derived from the Victorian era.
While our relationship to animals as companions has evolved and shifted over time, it appears that we again recognize the enjoyable and beneficial aspects of pet companionship. An estimated 62 percent of U.S. households (71 million) own pets. Most people now consider their pets a member of the family. More than 60 percent of households with pets have a Christmas stocking for their pets and give them gifts.
Ancient Greeks kept dogs in their healing temples because they were thought to cure illness. We now know many of the healing benefits of pet companionship that the Greeks recognized. Dogs again assist with therapy by reducing levels of pain and anxiety among hospitalized children and adults. In assisted living facilities, interaction with dogs leads to more social interactions among residents and less loneliness.
Pets uplift our lives in innumerable ways. They provide us with unconditional love and nonjudgmental companionship. They raise our spirits when we are down. They ease our anxieties. They improve our health — even watching fish has health benefits. They improve our social life and benefit our human interactions. They provide therapy for the elderly and housebound.
As you reflect on the holidays, family, friends and pets, take a moment to thank your veterinary health care team. They are a hardworking, compassionate group that strives to care for the needs of your companions. Happy Holidays.
Ron Carsten, DVM, PhD, CVA, CCRT was one of the first veterinarians in Colorado to use the integrative approach and has been a pioneer in the therapeutic use of food concentrates to manage clinical problems. In addition to his doctor of veterinary medicine, he holds a Ph.D. in cell and molecular biology and is a certified veterinary acupuncturist and certified canine rehabilitation therapist. He practices integrative veterinary medicine in Glenwood Springs.
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