Alumni Perspective: The Social, Emotional and Physical Benefits of the Human-Animal Bond

VMS Community Blog
March 26, 2019
by Captain Cynthia Edgerton, U.S. Army Veterinary Corps; VMS Class of 2010.

This spring, Captain Edgerton returned to VMS to speak with students and faculty about her work as a veterinarian in the U.S. Army. She authored the following blog post as a contribution to our community's ongoing discussion of social-emotional health. 

 



Many people do not know that there are veterinarians in the military. Not all soldiers walk on two legs and carry a rifle. Dogs have been a part of the U.S. military in every conflict since the Revolutionary War. Chip, a canine sentry for the U.S. Army, was the most decorated dog in World War II. He served with the 3rd Infantry Division in Italy and France and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star, and Purple Heart. 

As a U.S. Army veterinarian, I have the honor and privilege of caring for dogs like Chip, and each day I see evidence of the positive effects of human-animal bonds. These benefits are not limited only to the military though, and recent research has shown very real physical and social-emotional benefits to owning a pet, and, in particular, a dog.

Reduced Risk of Cardiovascular Disease

Research is being conducted all around the world demonstrating the positive effects of canine companions on our physical health. A 2017 study in Sweden compared rates of cardiovascular disease in dog-owning families and non-dog-owning families. With over 3.4 million participants, the study showed a lower risk of cardiac-related deaths in families with dogs. 

Reduced Blood Pressure

A U.S. study published last year in the American Heart Association’s journal, Hypertension, followed 48 people with high blood pressure who were given dogs. After just six months their blood pressure was significantly lower. Other studies show that dog owners have increased immune function and fewer health problems. In general, dogs keep us physically active, keep us busy, and give us companionship.

Psychological Benefits

In addition to the physical and social aspects of the human-animal bond, animals have an important psychological impact on their owners. Pets help reduce stress, anxiety, and depression. Recent studies at the Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine examined the effects of service dog partnership on the symptoms of combat trauma. The studies found that veterans with service dogs had significantly less depression, increased quality of life and higher social functioning. 

The work of a program called the Warrior Canine Connection has shown similar benefits, but uses a different approach. In this program, wounded warriors with post-traumatic stress train dogs to become service animals. Training dogs helps recovering veterans cope with post-deployment challenges, and in the process, the veterans heal themselves. Research by Canine Companions has shown that friendly interactions with dogs can release a powerful brain chemical that inspires a profound sense of attachment. This chemical reaction can also reduce fear and anxiety, and increase a sense of trust.

Pets Help Humans Connect With Others and Live Longer

In addition to physical benefits, animals help create human-to-human friendships and lead to increased social support. A survey conducted by the University of Western Australia, Harvard, and WALTHAM Centre for Pet Nutrition found that pet owners were 60% more likely than non-pet owners to get to know people in their neighborhoods. They also found that people who have solid social networks are 50% more likely to live longer than those with limited social networks. In today’s society, especially with increased usage of social media, many people have trouble making connections. Pets provide an incentive for people to get out of their homes, and a means for them to connect with others over a mutual interest. 

Dogs have been part of our society for thousands of years. Having a pet can not only facilitate a healthy lifestyle, but can also provide numerous other psychological and social benefits.  While canine soldiers, like Chip, help keep the country safe, our personal pets help keep us active and bring us together as a community.
 

About the Author

Cynthia Edgerton grew up in the Vail Valley and attended Vail Mountain School from kindergarten through 12th grade. After graduating from VMS in 2010, she completed her undergraduate degree in biology and military science at Saint Michael’s College in Vermont where she was also a part of the Army Reserve Officer Training Corps. In 2014, the Army granted Cynthia an education delay to attend veterinary school at the University of Minnesota. She earned her doctorate of veterinary medicine in May of 2018 and entered the Army Veterinary Corps as a Captain. 

She is currently stationed at Fort Carson in Colorado Springs while she completes an internship program in animal medicine and public health. This summer the Army will move her to Kirkland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, NM, where she will be the head veterinarian for the next 2-3 years. Following her military service, her goal is to return to her hometown in Vail, Colorado and establish a veterinary practice. 
 

About Vail Mountain School

Founded in 1962, Vail Mountain School is a K-12, coed, independent school in Vail, Colorado. Our philosophy is to provide a demanding, college preparatory, liberal arts education in an atmosphere of mutual respect between faculty and students, where nurturing a healthy self-concept and stimulating academic inquiry are parallel objectives. Intentionally designed cross-age programs promote role modeling, responsibility, self confidence, and a sense of community. Our location in the Rocky Mountains allows us to integrate the outdoors into the academic and cultural fabric of the school through hut trips, all-school Ski Fridays, and other experiential learning opportunities. The result: our graduates possess a quiet confidence that serves them well in college and in life—confidence to assert themselves in their first college level essays; to raise their hand in a class of hundreds; to live on their own for the first time, to meet with and engage their professors; and to lead among their peers.