The role of a pet has developed over the years from that of a simple outdoor guardian or mouse-catcher to one of a true companion and family member. Dogs, cats, and other pets have become an integral part of our everyday lives, and the relationship that exists between humans and animals has become known as the human-animal bond.
Not only has pet ownership become more common, but many pet owners also have more than one pet (see Health and the Human-Animal Bond: Pets in the United States (as of 2001)*). As a result, there are now many specialty veterinarians, such as those serving only cat owners, owners of exotic pets, or those with more family-oriented practices. On average, pet owners in the US take their dogs to the veterinarian 1.9 times per year, and their cats to the veterinarian 1.0 times per year.
Many studies have shown that there are health benefits for owners who develop close bonds with a pet. Pet owners have fewer minor health problems, lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and better psychological well-being than people who do not have a pet. And pets appear to fill many of the same support functions as humans do for both adults and children. Animals are known to play a central, influential role in children's lives. Studies have reported that pet-owning preteens are more independent and have higher self-esteem.
Companion animals have also benefited from their closer association with people. In the past few decades, drugs and vaccines have been developed specifically for animals that have eliminated many of the infectious diseases that can shorten pets' lives. Recent surveys have shown that a pet's good health is a priority for many owners, and that they are willing to pay for both preventive care (such as vaccinations) and for advanced veterinary treatment for their companion animals.
With the greater esteem of companion animals in the household and in society, there has also come a greater emphasis on the animals' lifelong health. Albert Schweitzer's concept of “reverence for life” has become a standard for decision-making concerning animals for many people.
Last full review/revision July 2011 by Lynette A. Hart, PhD