Ancient peoples valued the profound connections between humans and animals. In recent years, increasing research evidence confirms the physiological, and social benefits of interactions with animals and the therapeutic potential of animal-assisted programs. Yet the field of mental health has been slow to recognize the importance of these bonds in clinical theory, research and practice.
Human-Animal Bonds In Historical Context
In ancient times and in cultures worldwide, animals have been respected as essential partners in human survival, health, and healing. Many spiritual traditions have honored the relationships of people to animal forms of life, as part of the interconnectedness of the natural world and a link to the spirit world. Animal companions and guides have assumed powerful roles in animist beliefs and shamanic practices. Asian cultures, and other indigenous peoples continue to draw symbolic meaning and important teachings from animals.
In Chinese legend, 2,500 years ago the Buddha summoned twelve creatures under the Bodhi tree, taught them about their strengths and weaknesses, and then sent them out into the world to guide people in their personal and relational growth. The Chinese believe that each of us is born with essential characteristics and creative forces of the animal associated with the month and year of our birth. Since ancient times, animals have also been important throughout folklore and mythology. The ”Fu Dog,” a mystical part-lion, part-canine creature, is still prominent in stories, sculpture, and imagery, as a protector of the home and small children.
The domestication and socialization of animals was an interactive process of mutual cooperation and coevolution based on a shared need for shelter, food, and protection. Archeological evidence reveals that over 14,000 years ago, domestic wolves, ancestors of the dog, lived in settlements with humans. Valued for their intelligence, keen senses, and loyalty, early dogs were respected as guardians, guides, and equal partners in hunting and fishing. By 9,000 years ago, both dogs and cats assumed crucial roles in developing agricultural communities. Dogs assisted in herding and farming, while cats eliminated rodents that brought disease and threatened grain harvests. Although treated as subservient to their human masters, both became increasingly valued as companions.
Both dogs and cats were treated with great respect in ancient Egypt. Cats were honored and even worshipped in association with the goddess Bastet, who represented the protective powers of the sun. Dogs were considered such loyal companions during life that they were revered as guides in the afterlife. When a pet dog died, the owners shaved off their eyebrows, smeared mud in their hair, and mourned aloud for days. Even commoners scraped together enough money to embalm and mummify their dogs and buried them in one of Egypt’s many animal necropolises.
During the early Greek and Roman empires, dogs were commonly kept as hunters, herders, and guardians, but were also treated as loyal, beloved pets. In early Greek literature, Homer wrote about the dog’s fidelity in The Odyssey. When Odysseus arrived home after an absence of many years, disguised as a beggar, the only one to recognize him was his aged dog, Argus, who wagged his tail at his master and then died. Animal burials in ancient Greece and Rome revealed their significance to human companions. The intentional wording of epithets described the merits of the animal and their owner’s sorrow at their death. In the ruins of Pompeii, stretched out beside the remains of a child were the bones of a dog named DeltaF identified by his engraved silver collar.
Ancient burial sites in many parts of the world reveal close animal-human bonds over the millennia. In Peru, where dogs are still valued as shepherds with prized llamas, archeologists have discovered cemeteries where the early Chiribaya people buried their dogs with blankets and food alongside their human companions.
Both Judaism and Islam placed importance on the proper treatment of animals. The Talmud recommends that dogs be respected because they refrained from barking during the night the Israelites escaped from bondage in Egypt. With Christianity came an annual ritual of ”Blessing of the Animals” on church steps. In Catholic parishes, this occurred on the Feast Day of St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals. However, in the Middle Ages, the Christian churches persecuted pagan believers as witches and heretics and identified animist spirits in animal form with the devil. Cats, associated with witchcraft, did regain some status for their role in destroying rats that carried the Black Plague.
Since the Middle Ages, purebred cats and dogs increasingly became the prized possession of rulers and aristocracy. In Asia, some breeds were so valued that they had their own servants. Lap dogs became popular as ”comforters.” In the royal court of China, Pekinese dogs were bred very small to fit into an empress’s sleeve, to be carried around the palace. In Japan, the royal family kept dogs in their private quarters to warn them of intruders and to warm them in bed in winter.
Throughout Europe, breeding and owning lap dogs, cats, and other pets became a widespread trend among the royalty. In the 19th century, Queen Victoria, who was especially fond of dogs, had nearly 90 different pets during her life. With the rise of the middle-class, aspirations of affluence led to wide demand for ”aristocratic” animals to compensate for a human lack of ”proper breeding.” The competitions for ”best of breed” enabled commoners to emulate the rich. Owners imbued their pets with human-like qualities, often adorning them with elaborate clothing. They provided amusement, relieving pressures of everyday life. Family pets became central to family life. As in earlier times, their care and nurture brought companionship and pleasure, as well as compensation for loss with frequent early parental and child mortality.
Sadly, domesticated animals have often been badly abused by humans. Their cruel treatment and exploitation in overwork and gaming sparked the advocacy of animal protection organizations and laws in England in the late 19th century. In the United States, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), founded in 1866, led to the first laws to protect animals. Of note, they were also used to prosecute cases of child abuse before child protection laws were written! (New York Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children, 2009). In our times, animal rights movements have been at the forefront in addressing concerns about maltreatment and killing of animals. Organizations such as American Humane Association, advocate for animals through education, legislation, adoption programs, and direct care.