Pet ownership in America is a common affair — 39 percent of U.S. households own at least one dog and nearly 34 percent own at least one cat.
While anecdotal benefits of pet companionship can be traced to biblical times, emerging research documents the value of the human-animal bond in child development, elderly care, mental illness, physical impairment, dementia, abuse and trauma recovery, and the rehabilitation of incarcerated youth and adults.
A recent issue of the journal Family Process includes two articles on this phenomenal.
The first, titled “Human-Animal Bonds I,” focuses on the benefits of companion animals while the second, “Human-Animal Bonds II,” elaborates on the role of pet ownership in couple and family dynamics and family therapy.
In the papers, Dr. Froma Walsh examines how a bond with a pet can strengthen human resilience through times of crisis, persistent adversity, and disruptive transitions, such as relocation, divorce, widowhood, and adoption.
The well-being and healing that a pet can provide includes a range of relational benefits, from stress reduction and playfulness, to loyal companionship, affection, comfort, security, and unconditional love.
Pets also can be drawn into couple and family conflict. Women often do not leave abusive partners because of threats of abuse to a beloved pet.
Dr. Walsh says, “The powerful meaning and significance of companion animals is underestimated.”
Mental health professionals rarely consider these bonds in clinical assessment and intervention, with focus limited to human relationships. Profound attachments with pets—and grief in their loss—are often marginalized, seen as abnormal, or altogether ignored in theory, training, and practice.
These two articles provide an essential overview to inform clinical scholars and practitioners of the potential benefits in facilitating positive growth for individuals, couples, and families when companion animals are included as members of the healing team—and even co-therapists.