Dogs and veterinarians in today's society
Dogs hold a special place in today’s society, and understanding how different people regard their dogs has a major impact on how veterinarians function on a daily basis.
The veterinary profession has a major part to play in educating people about different aspects of animals and animal welfare.
The role of dogs in society has evolved greatly over the last century, and nowadays dogs fulfill various roles for different people.
Excellent communication skills are essential to ensure owner compliance and optimal animal health.
The clinician must appreciate that both the dog and the owner should be at the heart of every consultation.
Humans and animals have interacted in different ways for many thousands of years, depending on how society has assigned certain roles to different species of animal. For example, some animals are regarded as true commodities, being used for food and their fur or leather employed for clothing. On the other hand, humans also have an emotional bond with animals, which means that we allow certain species to co-habit with us as partners or family members (Figure 1). The ways in which we interact with them have also altered over the centuries, and in particular the anthropomorphization of animals (i.e., the tendency to ascribe human attributes to them), has had a lasting influence on how we now keep, feed and treat them 1. It is essential that veterinarians understand how owners relate to their pets, as this influences both our professional behavior and how we can achieve optimal animal welfare. This article seeks to outline the social importance currently attributed to animals in general and dogs in particular, and will explore the roles society attributes to them.
Animals and science
For a long time, fields such as ethology, physiology and evolutionary biology were the drivers for scientific research involving animals, but the humanities and social science disciplines almost completely ignored animals until towards the end of the 20th century. This gradually altered, mainly due to the rise of the animal protection and animal rights movements, and transformed the way in which we perceive animals, so that rather than taking an anthropocentric view (which regards humankind as the most important element of existence, as opposed to God or animals) we now have a more zoocentric focus, whereby animals are often given preference above other considerations 2. Recent research has focused on the importance of analyzing social human-animal relations, with special reference to cats and dogs 3, and interest in evaluating how we relate to animals has increased, leading to the development of Human-Animal Studies, sometimes known as anthrozoology. This is an interdisciplinary field that explores the areas animals occupy within human society and culture, and how we interact with them 4.
The veterinary profession
While animals have only recently been given greater consideration in the humanities and social sciences, the veterinary profession has always been centered on animals and their wellbeing. At the beginning of the 18th century, veterinary medicine was focused on the treatment and prevention of animal diseases, along with an expert assessment of meat quality, but these fields gradually developed and diversified to include other areas, such as veterinary drug research 5 and laboratory animal science 6. Professional uniformity was achieved as countries introduced systems which licensed individuals to practice veterinary medicine, and this was followed by the formation of various veterinary associations.
Nowadays veterinary involvement in many aspects of modern society is notable. For example, there has been significant veterinary input and influence on the overproduction of domestic animals, the selective breeding for certain features that are deleterious to an animal’s overall health, and the contentious topics of ear cropping and tail docking and their damaging effects on animals. Veterinarians have also taken the lead in other areas such as pet nutrition and dog training and behavior, a reminder that the profession is undergoing constant change 7. We must be willing to play a central role if future research into the relationships between humans and animals is to be holistic, and our specialized veterinary knowledge should be recognized and acknowledged whenever there are cultural and social debates on issues involving animals.
Veterinarians are also often confronted with a multitude of real social problems which may require us to overcome our professional boundaries and consider how we should respond in certain situations. This includes taking into account the particular needs and wishes of pet owners 8, recognizing relevant social problems – such as the connection between animal abuse and domestic violence – and acting accordingly 9, as well as skillfully using our communication abilities in clinical practice 10. The increase and diversity of relevant skills and competences required for a veterinarian to interact in today’s broad society impacts greatly on both undergraduate training and the daily routine of veterinary practice.
Dogs and society
As noted above, the role of animals within society has changed greatly over the last few decades, influenced by cultural and social developments. Scientific debate continues to focus on the human-animal relationships, but from varying viewpoints. For example, research in German-speaking countries relates primarily to the historical changes in how humans and animals interact and how we choose to selectively breed animals for certain features. In English-speaking countries many studies will focus on animal welfare and the use of animals in scientific research 2. This dichotomy can be attributed on the one hand to the increased number of animals kept as pets, and on the other to a shift in how animals are used to benefit humankind and our attitudes towards them 12, 13.
The number of dogs in private households has been gradually rising in recent years. For example, Germany recorded approximately 9.4 million dogs in 2018, and any observer in a residential area, park or shopping center will testify to the popularity and numbers of dogs kept as pets (Figure 2). Dog ownership is seen across all strata of society, although below-average levels are reported in lower social classes, and it is recognized that certain breeds are often linked to certain levels within society 13. This offers an insight into how society regards dogs; they are often regarded as an expression of lifestyle and will frequently function as a status symbol (Figure 3) 14. However, dogs also serve to stimulate interaction and communication, and perhaps because individuals within a family can have flawed relationships with one another 13, the rapport between owner and dog fulfills and satisfies our human need for company, friendship and affection 8.
We must be willing to play a central role if future research into the relationships between humans and animals is to be holistic, and our specialized veterinary knowledge should be recognized and acknowledged whenever there are cultural and social debates on issues involving animals.
It is well recognized that pet-owning in general – and dogs in particular – has many physiological and psychological benefits. Many qualitative studies have already pointed out that dogs can contribute to stress reduction and better physical health, mainly because dog owners are more physically active 15. One particular study that investigated how older people interacted with their pets emphasizes the many different ways dogs can impact our lives 16. The respondents noted that their animals offered them love, affection and happiness, as well as appreciation and loyalty, thereby enriching everyday life. The animals provided older people with a valuable daily purpose, strengthening social contacts and stimulating a wide range of activities, and helped abolish loneliness, resulting in an overall feeling of well-being. Some participants who had owned pets since childhood also stated that animals helped establish a link to their past. Negative aspects were also cited, including the financial costs and the physical exertion involved when caring for an animal, yet all the respondents in the study wanted to live with animals long-term 17. These findings underline the fact that the majority of people who live or work with dogs regard them as almost human in many ways – intelligent, unique, individual beings who receive and return affection 18.
We can therefore use the dog to illustrate the main “functions” of animals with respect to humans.
- The "sociability function" – how dogs participate in society and how they can act as partners in everyday life.
- The "surrogate function" – how a dog can essentially be a substitute for a human relationship by serving as an alternative for a partner or even a child, satisfying our highly emotional need for intimacy.
- The "projective function" – how a dog reflects an owner’s personality, thus strengthening and acknowledging an individual’s own character (Figure 4) 19.
These diverse roles both illustrate the close connection between dogs and their owner's lifestyle, and demonstrate the fact that a dog can be perceived differently by different people. How people perceive and interact with dogs will always be shaped by cultural factors 20, and such influences and perspectives are subject to constant change. This in turn significantly impacts on us as veterinarians in everyday life, especially when it comes to communication with owners.
The role of the veterinarian in human-animal relationshipsThe recent rise in pet numbers and the cultural perception of animals greatly influence the skills required to be an effective veterinarian in today’s society. Importantly, because a dog is now often regarded as a family member, many owners will see their pets as active participants in the consulting room, and the owner will often grant them self-determination and participation in the veterinary treatment. This may not be in line with our professional values, as we strive to make decisions in an animal’s best interests, and can significantly impact on our working lives.
It has been suggested that veterinarians fall into one of two categories. The first group is primarily concerned with promoting animal welfare, and will assume that this is also the client’s main concern. In the second group are veterinarians who see themselves as service providers and who, when confronted by a client who has a potentially unsuitable stance on a particular matter, will modify their attitude accordingly – but will still keep animal welfare at the heart of their approach 21. Both categories must be able to communicate in a way that balances animal welfare and the needs and concerns of the owner. For instance, veterinarians are often the chosen source when a client wants to ask about a pet’s nutritional needs or behavioral problems. How should we respond when an owner who follows a vegan lifestyle asks if they can offer the same diet to their dog? The various possible pros and cons of a canine vegan diet should be presented by the veterinarian with the dog's best interests at heart, but consideration must also be given to the needs and beliefs of the owner. This illustrates the challenge often faced in the consulting room; whilst an animal’s needs should be taken into account, should human concerns and values ultimately take priority when it comes to veterinary treatment 12?
This means that there is a triad in every consultation – the clinician, the owner and the pet – and the characters involved will interact and modify each other’s response and the eventual outcome of the consult 1. Sometimes the animal can be given more emphasis than the owner, although the latter obviously has a significant part to play in ensuring that treatment is successful (Figure 5). Active engagement with the pet owner is therefore essential, and this requires excellent open and careful communication; it is essential to work out how to reach the owner without being over-judgmental or critical 22, and we should be aware of their emotions, concerns and fears. We must be able to interact with an owner on a level which allows them to appreciate how he or she behaves towards their pet, and this will significantly contribute to the success of the recommended veterinary treatment 21 23. A positive outcome is largely due to a clinician's good communication skills and not simply to professional expertise 22 – and conversely, a lack of trust and poor communication will often be major factors when an owner adversely evaluates a veterinarian’s performance and professionalism. A good communicator enables an empathetic and sympathetic engagement with the concerns and needs of owners through active listening, and can deliver professional information in a way that lay persons can understand and use to make informed choices about treatment 22 24. Even details such as body language will play a significant role; it has been shown that the facial expressions of human health workers have a major impact on a patient’s faith in their prescribed treatment 25. Possibly linked to this, telephone advice is particularly open to misinterpretation, as clients do not always understand information provided in this way. This can lead to pet owners misunderstanding what they have been told, or that vital details are missed during the call, for example because an owner is worried about his pet and is not concentrating on the conversation. That said, the advent of telemedicine may in some cases be beneficial for animal welfare – for example, if there are major obstacles that prevent an owner attending the clinic in person. It would therefore seem relevant that today's veterinarians are also enabled to conduct "distant" consultations in a manner that allows them to elicit the correct information from a pet owner and advise accordingly.
It is essential that veterinarians understand how owners relate to their pets, as it influences both our professional behavior and how we can achieve optimal animal welfare.
In short, if we can communicate well, this will build a basis of trust; pet owners will then rely on us, and this in turn creates a foundation for delivering excellent healthcare, animal well-being, and satisfaction for both clients and ourselves.
So what of veterinary practice in the future? The altered relationship between humans and animals in general, and dogs in particular, has meant that many pets are now family members, and we must recognize this. At the same time, the perception of veterinarians as social service providers has become more widespread, and our communication skills and abilities are decisive factors in achieving professional success. Practical communication skills must not only be taught to students (which requires making time in an already-intense undergraduate syllabus) but also provided as post-graduate training, with in-depth supervision and coaching. Finally, veterinarians can further develop certain communication channels such as social media to better disseminate information on relevant animal-related issues, thereby contributing to a distinctive – and better – perception of animals.
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Dr. Ameli holds a PhD in sociology with a research focus on human-animal studies and professionalization for animal-assisted interventions. She has worked as a coordinator at the International Center for 3Rs (Replacement, Reduction and Refinement) in Animal Research since 2018 and is currently studying the methodological design of interdisciplinary collaboration in multi-species research. Read more