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Q&A: Caring for Your Pet on National Pet Day

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Alyssa Hurst

Feature  •
Pet Day

With people everywhere hunkered down at home, pets are offering a steady source of comfort, companionship and entertainment. From the cat butts dancing through Zoom meetings to the tippy-tapping puppy paws begging for one more chance to fetch the stick, pets are taking center stage in daily existence.  

This National Pets Day, the DU Newsroom asked Philip Tedeschi, executive director of the University of Denver’s Institute for Human-Animal Connection and clinical professor in the Graduate School of Social Work, how we humans can best reciprocate companionship for the animals enriching our lives.

This email conversation has been edited and condensed.

What do pets need to thrive, beyond a steady supply of food and water?

Cats and dogs need very different things to thrive. It’s helpful to approach welfare through the lens of species-specific considerations. Often animal well-being is defined by the degree to which we meet the Five Freedoms. The Five Freedoms, originally published in the Brambell Report in 1965, are arguably the most frequently referenced framework for assuring animal welfare. Initially developed to address the welfare needs of farm animals, they are now commonly applied to companion animals as well. The Five Freedoms state that animals are entitled to: freedom from thirst, hunger, and malnutrition; freedom from discomfort; freedom from pain, injury, and disease; freedom from fear and distress; and freedom to express normative behavior.

How can pet caretakers best improve the emotional well-being of pets?

Belonging and connection may be the single most critical issue when caring for companion animals. The term “domestic dog” has origins in the recognition that dogs have been co-evolving with us for tens of thousands of years. This co-evolutionary continuity has resulted in dogs having the capacity to have significant knowledge about and attachment to the people they consider their family or pack.

So when we are entering the family circle and asking to stand near the fire, we need to recognize that dogs have always found their greatest meaning in looking out for their pack. Understanding that dogs are highly sentient and emotional animals that have opinions and complex emotions and thoughts not unlike our own helps us meet their deeper needs. Find shared activities that are positive, show that you are generous and safe, apologize for mishaps, be kind and be playful. I ask myself, “What kind of relationship do I want to be in?” When I apply this same question to my relationships with dogs, I learn about them, and we become real friends, get along, and eventually build real trust and affection. 

What role does our own self-care play in the welfare of our pets?

It has been said that our dogs don't lie and in turn ask us to do the same. So being honest about your own health and well-being is important to your relationships with pets, in part because if we are not doing well, or pretending to be well, this incongruity is evident to our companion animals.

Dogs are authentic, live in the present and offer us the opportunity to join them in practicing mindfulness, [which leads to] a decrease in anxiety, irritability and depression. There is ample evidence that contact with animals has physical, social and psychophysiological benefits. Pet keeping and pet walking offer structured routines where people have opportunity to improve cardiovascular health, manage their weight, circulation, bone health and more. The less obvious benefits are the impacts that our companion animals have on mental health. Dogs can alter a tendency toward isolation through connection, interaction with others, ensuring routine movement and providing a sense of purpose.

How has our approach to pet welfare changed over time? What recent understandings or findings should guide our behavior?

The new science of sentience studies the cognitive and emotional lives of animals and has really changed the way we see our relationships with our companion animals. I believe that one of the best aspects of having a pet in our lives is deepening that relationship. To do that, we often need to be willing to learn about our animals as both a species and as individuals. Like with all people, our genetics and heritage tell us something about our makeup, but we are also individuals. Exploring the cognitive and emotional lives of our companions is a deeply enriching opportunity to take your relationship to a new level.

We share virtually all aspects of anatomy and physiology with dogs and other mammals, and as a result we can often recognize emotions and cognitive process in other animals. Research has indicated that women are more likely to believe in animal sentience than men. Is this our socialization? What happens when we don’t believe other animals have emotions? Evidence suggests that the understanding of sentience in other species predicts how we treat other animals, including our dogs and cats.

When humans prioritize pet welfare, how does our world change? Do we see benefits beyond companionship? In other words, how does pet welfare impact human welfare?

“One Health” is a term we will all become familiar with in the days to come. This concept reflects on the interconnectedness of health and welfare between people, animals and the environment. One Health and One Welfare models hold special significance at this time, as the COVID-19 pandemic should serve as a wakeup call for increased attention [to things like] biodiversity loss, legal and illegal live-animal markets that trade in numerous types of wildlife, and human population pressures on our ecological system’s health. These are all factors in the current circumstances.

One Health and the human-animal connection are most evident during times of crisis. Famously, during the emergency response in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, many people would not leave their homes without their animals, resulting in many lost human and animal lives. This resulted in congress passing The PETS Act, which authorizes FEMA to provide rescue, care, shelter and essential needs for individuals with animals and for animals themselves.  

What are the most interesting or exciting ways you see pet parents working to enrich their pets’ lives?

I think the most interesting emerging enrichment is related to the importance of play. Play serves as a mutually beneficial activity and helps us on a social, emotional and physical level. One friend of mine was describing wild games of hide and seek that included their dogs — mostly doing the seeking. Another friend was telling me that while at home, they have [cultivated] a newfound interest in baking treats for their cat and dog, which apparently has been well received by their companions.

What makes a good pet guardian?

Beyond meeting the required Five Freedoms, the best pet guardians learn to listen and believe what their animals are saying. Animals are communicating with us constantly, but how well do we listen and understand? One of the clearest aspects coming out of research into human-canine relationships suggests that how we interact with our companion animals — and other animals as well — impacts and influences who we are. Doing a bit of soul searching on how to improve and deepen our non-human animal relationships is time well-spent. Keep learning about the animals you share your life with — they are certainly trying to learn about you.

How have COVID-19 and large-scale physical distancing affected the pet welfare landscape?  

We have learned that social support comes in many forms and that it is not just a person that can offer us a trusted relationship. People are at home all day, every day right now. That can mean many things — cabin fever, cramped spaces, disrupted routines. But through it all, pets are there for us, and that companionship/relationship has scientifically proven benefits.

Studies show that companion animals can help buffer against stress and help us relax. Interactions with companion animals have been shown to decrease cortisol levels and lower blood pressure and heart rate — all physiological markers for stress. These physiological changes that provide anti-stress benefits may also contribute to the many other benefits animals have on human health and wellness, like cardiovascular health and mental health.

Those health benefits may come from the extra exercise that playing and walking require and the stress relief of having a steady best friend on hand.