Human-Animal Bond

Key Message

WALTHAM has contributed to the understanding of the ways in which people’s relationships with pets are changing and evolving, and the effects of these relationships on both pets and their owners.


Today, having pets share our lives is becoming even more common and their roles as ‘family members’ are increasing in importance and complexity. Smaller household sizes due to factors such as delaying or foregoing marriage and children; family breakdown and separation; and a growing aged segment of the population; mean that relationships with pets are increasingly important for healthy child development at one end of the spectrum and for healthy ageing at the other.

Advances in veterinary medicine also mean that pet owners have many more options available and decisions to make with regard to their pet’s health. The role of pets as members of the family also means that pet owners are becoming more concerned and educated about pet health and are driving the development of products and services to enhance quality of life and longevity for their pets.

Pets receive many significant benefits to their health and welfare from being valued members of people’s families. To ensure their best health and highest quality of life, it is important for owners to realise that the needs of pets and the needs of people are not identical and that things like over-indulging pets in food treats can ultimately lead to diminished health and welfare.

Why WALTHAM is Interested

Understanding the nature of the bond between pets and owners, and its impact on health and welfare choices, will help us to support owners in making decisions about their pets that are in both their best interests.


WALTHAM work through external collaborations to study the mutual and dynamic relationships between people and pets and the ways in which these interactions may impact the physical and psychological health and well-being of both humans and animals.

Insight Generation

Owner visits significantly decreased pain scores for dogs hospitalised in a veterinary intensive care unit

WALTHAM has partnered with researchers at the University of Missouri, US, to examine the effects of an owner visitation programme for dogs hospitalised in a veterinary intensive care unit. Owners often express a desire to maintain contact with their pet while the pet is hospitalised but there are different views on whether this practice is beneficial or detrimental to pets and pet owners.

The study observed a total of 41 dogs and measured the dog’s heart rate (HR), blood pressure (BP) and level of pain before an owner visit, 5 minutes into an owner visit, 5 minutes before the visit ended and 5 minutes after the owner’s departure. Significant decreases were observed in pain scores at 5 minutes into the visit (p=0.0372), and 5 minutes before the owner’s departure (p=0.0186). Changes were also observed in HR (p=0.16) and BP (p=0.51), but these were not significant (Johnson et al. 2010; Johnson et al. 2011; Johnson et al. 2012).

Owners of overweight dogs tend to ‘humanise’ them and show affection through feeding

Obesity is associated with health problems in both people and pets, and, as in humans, it is a commonly-observed nutritional disease in the veterinary field. WALTHAM examined the relationship between owner and dog body weight and explored the owner-related factors that put dogs at risk for becoming overweight.

A total of 122 dogs and owners were recruited into the study, and were categorised into 4 groups according to owner body mass index (BMI) and canine body condition score (BCS). Overweight was defined as a BMI of > 27 kg/m2 and lean as a BMI of < 25 kg/m2. In dogs, overweight was defined as a BCS of > 7 and lean as BCS of < 5. Each owner completed two validated questionnaires assessing psychological aspects of the owner-dog relationship and approaches to health and nutrition (McCune et al. 2007).

Results demonstrated that owners of overweight dogs were more likely to humanise their pets and this effect was stronger when the owners of the overweight dog were also overweight themselves. Lean owners with lean dogs were less likely to offer food rewards and more likely to feed their dog only once per day than overweight owners of overweight dogs. In this study 69% of participating dogs matched their owners’ weight status (McCune et al. 2007).


Johnson R, Mann FA, McCune S. Owner visitation: Clinical effects on dogs hospitalized in an intensive care unit. 12th International Association of Human-Animal Interaction Organizations (IAHAIO) Conference, July 1-4 2010. Stockholm, Sweden. [Abstract 62]

Johnson RA, Mann FA, McKenney CA, McCune S. Owner visitation: Clinical effects on dogs hospitalized in an intensive care unit. 45th Congress of the International Society for Applied Ethology, August 4 2011. Indianapolis, Indiana. [Session 13]

Johnson RA, Mann FA, McKenney CA, McCune S. Owner visitation: Clinical effects on dogs hospitalized in an intensive care unit. NIH/Mars-WALTHAM Research Consortium Meeting, July 9-10 2012. Waltham-on-the-Wolds, UK.

McCune S, Morris P, Montoya A, Bautista I, Juste C, Suarez L, et al. The effect of owner weight status on the relationship between owner and dog. 11th International Conference on Human-Animal Interactions - IAHAIO 2007 - People and Animals: Partnership in Harmony, October 5-8 2007. Tokyo, Japan. [Poster 23]

Further Reading

Johnson RA, Beck AM, McCune S. The Health Benefits of Dog Walking for Pets & People: Evidence & Case Studies. West Lafayette, Indiana. Purdue University Press. 2011.

Wedl M, Schöberl I, Bauer B, Day J, Kotrschal K. Relational factors affecting dog social attraction to human partners. Interaction Studies. 2010;11(3):482-503.

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