PET owners will often choose dogs from breeds with an unhealthy conformation because it fulfils their deep-rooted psychological need “to care” for another creature, according to speakers at the BVA congress.
Danny Mills of the University of Lincoln and Peter Sandøe of the University of Copenhagen explored some of the darker aspects of the human-animal bond and the reasons why sometimes the benefits of that relationship may be entirely one-sided.
Prof. Sandøe described recent research comparing the intensity of the emotional attachment felt for their pets by Danish owners of four different dog breeds: French bulldogs, Cavalier King Charles spaniels, Chihuahas and Cairn terriers.
The study showed that the owner’s connection with their pet was significantly stronger for the three breeds with health problems due to an extreme conformation than for the one generally healthy breed, the Cairn terrier.
“The relationship is a little bit pathological, a form of Munchhausen’s syndrome-by-proxy. The dog that needs a lot of your care is also the dog to which you will be more emotionally attached,” he explained.
The questionnaire survey, sent to 750 owners of each breed, also revealed that people who bought puppies of breeds that suffer from conformational health problems were less likely to have undertaken research beforehand into the animal’s welfare needs. Prof Sandøe said that dog owners were generally unable to recognise evidence of ill health in their animal, such as the noises associated with brachycephalic obstructive airway syndrome in French bulldogs and other short-snouted breeds. The sounds of laboured breathing were regarded as normal and indeed an appealing feature of the pet.
He recalled the case of a bulldog which had undergone surgery to open up its airways whose owners then complained to the vet who carried out the procedure that their pet had now become too active.
Prof. Mills noted evidence to show that a dog’s psychological frailties could be as important as its physical weaknesses in cementing the relationship with its owner. Owners of dogs with behavioural problems were generally more likely to surrender them for rehoming, with one exception: a dog that showed excessive fear will actually have a lower than average risk of being rejected.
There is also evidence to suggest that when choosing a puppy from a litter, owners will often look for the animal which appears most needy, which would tend to select for animals with anxiety problems, Prof. Sandøe added.
While vulnerable people may tend to seek out vulnerable pets to allow them to indulge their urge to have something to care for, it cannot be guaranteed that the arrangement will improve the mental health of the human partner in this relationship.
He said a US study had indicated that owning a pet may actually increase some health problems and reduce the owner’s life expectancy, due to their reluctance to leave the animal on its own while they attend a hospital appointment.
Even for those with more robust mental health, the frequently made claims about the benefits of dog ownership in improving physical health have not been confirmed in properly conducted trials.
In the relatively small number of high-quality published studies, there was some evidence to suggest that women will enjoy improvements in heart rate and blood pressure after acquiring a dog but there is less evidence of benefits for men.
This may be linked to them having weaker emotional ties with the animal, Prof. Mills explained. Women are also more likely to reap the psychological benefits of talking to the animal when suffering from negative emotional states, such as depression, jealousy or anxiety. But there is little evidence to prove the same in males, he said.
Furthermore, it is the activities associated with keeping a dog, such as increased exercise, rather than pet ownership per se which is responsible for those human health benefits. “Your risk of heart disease will not be reduced if you sit on the sofa at home, eating chocolate with the dog on your lap.” Equally, lack of exercise and an inappropriate diet will lead to the most common preventable health problem in both dogs and cats. Prof. Sandøe showed how both species are skilled at manipulating their owner’s emotions in order to receive rations far in excess of their basic nutritional needs. Vets therefore need to explain to new pet owners that there are other ways to demonstrate their love for the pet than to give it food.
BVA past-president Robin Hargreaves argued that the majority of pet owners were caring people who only wanted the best for their animal. His tactic when trying to encourage them to change the way that they interact with the pet was to persuade them that obesity was bad for their pet, but could be readily treated.
“I tell them that if I could give them a pill which would tackle the problem but which had the drawback that they would need to give it a 3am, would they agree to give it?
“Usually, the client will say ‘Yes, I will set my alarm clock’. Then I tell them don’t worry, just give the dog less food, it is much easier.”