Past Forward

Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

Lifelong Companions

March 5, 2024

Animals — real, imagined and animatronic — play significant roles in the fabric of our lives, communities and cultures.

By Sassafras Lowrey

Throughout our lifetimes, animals, especially pets, often help form some of our closest connections. Across cultures and geography, the relationship we have with earth’s creatures big and small is a unique part of the human experience.

When asked why animals are so important to us, Alan Beck, professor emeritus of animal ecology in the Department of Comparative Pathobiology at Purdue University, noted that “pets have a place in almost all cultures. It’s not just an American thing or a European thing.” Beck, who centered his work and career on the role of animals in our lives, calls out our obsession with pets and our connection to animals as a universal human phenomenon.

What helps make this animal-to-human association so unique? It is nurtured early on in our development, whether there is direct contact with animals or not. From fairy tales about talking bears with chairs, porridge and beds to Sesame Street’s iconic Big Bird and today’s popular children’s shows like Peppa Pig or Bluey and her lovable Australian cattle dog family, animals are often central figures in the stories and oral histories children consume in large quantities from an early age. Dating back to the 18th century, in fact, the earliest stories published specifically with children in mind featured animals in key roles. Classics like Winnie-the-Pooh, The Velveteen Rabbit and Charlotte’s Web, or more contemporary Disney movies or modern-day animated TV shows like PAW Patrol, all aim to help children learn important life lessons via anthropomorphized animals as they grapple with friendship, love, grief, loyalty and belonging. Children see themselves, their families and their friends through these lovable characters as they grow and crave understanding of their own emotions.

According to Beck, animals, and in particular pets of all kinds, are often a child’s most important confidant, giving them an outlet to talk aloud to about things they might otherwise keep bottled up. He also explained that for children without siblings, pets often become a critical connection. And this remains true regardless of what type of pet — small animals like fish or hamsters can teach kids about companionship and responsibility just as well as a dog or cat can.

Even something as distant as a classroom critter can have similar effects and benefits. In a 2020 survey conducted by the nonprofit founders of the Pets in the Classroom program, 98% of teachers surveyed saw an increase in empathy and student responsibility when there was a classroom pet. These teachers also observed improvements in student social skills, decreased anxiety, increased attendance, less need for disciplinary measures and an increase in student self-esteem.

Illustration by Estudio Santa Rita

Illustration by Estudio Santa Rita

Many Roles

Obviously, close and meaningful relationships with animals are not specific to children. Adults have them as well. In past generations, dogs and cats, for instance, were even seen as “starter children’’ for people contemplating whether they were ready to have babies — a societal trend that now seems to be shifting as some people actually consider their pets or “fur babies’’ to be their children. In particular, many millennials today are choosing having pets over having kids altogether, increasingly involving their four-legged friends in aspects of their daily lives and cultural traditions — celebrating their pet’s birthday or adoption day and giving their pets holiday gifts. A recent Harris poll found that 33% of millennials cited their dog as the primary reason for purchasing a home.

In modern-day society, not only do adults treat their animals like family members, but they actively depend on them to perform important duties that help keep them safe and make their lives easier.

Since their domestication, and as they have evolved with humans, dogs have often worked alongside people, protecting and herding livestock, guarding property, pulling carts, rescuing people and assisting with hunting. Search-and-rescue dogs use their heightened sense of smell to locate missing people, searching the rubble of natural disasters around the world. Other specially trained dogs use their noses to screen for explosives in airports and at sporting events. Service dogs are trained to perform tasks that assist people with disabilities, including guiding people who are blind, pulling wheelchairs, alerting to seizures and providing support to people with autism or PTSD. These dogs often accompany their handlers everywhere they go and allow them to live more independent lives.

Animal-assisted therapy programs have also become increasingly common. Therapy animals, often dogs (though cats, horses, rabbits, pigs, guinea pigs and other animals are used as well), are trained and then certified to support people in need by visiting hospitals, nursing homes, schools, airports and other high-stress environments. Interacting with these animals reduces the psychological indicators of stress, loneliness, depression and anxiety. In addition, these interactions encourage social connections with new individuals, something that can be especially difficult for people who are sick, struggling or have survived trauma.

Pilley Bianchi is an author and the co-owner/trainer of Chaser, the border collie hailed as “the smartest dog in the world.” The founder of The Chaser Initiative, she has dedicated a portion of her career to educating children (K-12) about the power of play and praise by bringing dogs into the classroom. She offers some perspective on this innate human-animal bond, saying, “Dogs show us that we all want the same things — to wake up in the morning with an enthusiastic partner, have some fun, enjoy the messy parts in the middle and end the day with a cuddle at night. They give us so many opportunities to experience the purest forms of love and loss. What a magnificent gift.” She added, “If we do not take a page from their playbook, we are truly the lesser of the two species.”

Illustration by Estudio Santa Rita

Illustration by Estudio Santa Rita

Supporting Seniors

As we age, loneliness and social isolation can sometimes become prevalent, even posing serious health risks. Although it’s hard to scientifically measure the effects of isolation and loneliness on a person, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention quote recent studies that found social isolation and loneliness were associated with a 29% increased risk of heart disease and a 32% increased risk of stroke. Not to mention their documented connection to higher rates of depression, anxiety and suicide.

Older adults are often at an increased danger for these feelings because they are more likely to face situations such as living alone, the loss of a loved one or chronic illness. Providing senior communities with the opportunity to engage with animals can not only alleviate these feelings of loneliness and isolation but improve overall quality of life.

As evidence, Purdue University’s Beck described his recent study where goldfish were introduced into an environment with advanced Alzheimer’s patients. Many of these individuals couldn’t recall their own names, and doctors and staff struggled to find mind-stimulating exercises that would engage them or generate spatial and mental awareness — that is, until fish tanks were brought in.

“Patients were less agitated and ate more,” said Beck of the introduction of the aquariums, emphasizing that significant weight loss is a common side effect of Alzheimer’s. Patients were so enthralled by the fish swimming inside the tanks that they were more willing to sit and eat if they could continue to watch the fish during meals. “We had significant weight gains, less agitation and patients were aware of the fish,” stated Beck. In some instances, patients might not have any idea who the people around them were, but they were hyperaware of the fish, even mentioning if one didn’t look right on any given day or appeared to have discolored scales.

Illustration by Estudio Santa Rita

Illustration by Estudio Santa Rita

Robot Rover

The calming and healing aspects of such simple animal interactions and pet ownership are so profound that high-tech players are stepping up to make sure this form of companionship is all inclusive — not forgetting individuals and seniors who may be feeling severe isolation but are no longer in living situations that allow for pets or are no longer able to care for one.

Robotic therapy pets such as Paro the seal and the family of Joy for All cats and dogs can be an appealing option. Providing realistic animal-like interaction, these animatronic wonders respond to the sound of someone’s voice and their touch similar to the ways that a real animal would. Equipped with revolutionary sound technologies and built-in motion and touch sensors, they can do things like purr, bark, squeal and smile, and have real-feel fur coats and pseudo heartbeats.

Ted Fischer, CEO and co-founder of Ageless Innovation, the creators of Joy for All Companion Pets, explained, “This two-way interaction helps create a personally rich experience that can bring fun, joy and friendship — ultimately providing comfort, connection, companionship and an increased quality of life for older adults.”

Although the robotic replacements aren’t “real,” their users often form a real bond with these smart stuffed animals. “Those who are able to enjoy the companionship that pet ownership provides should absolutely do so,” acknowledged Fischer. “Our interactive companion is for those who may not be able to care for a real pet due to a living situation or the added responsibility.”

He added, “Many of our older adults create meaningful connections with their new ‘friend,’ even choosing to name them.”

Throughout the stages of our lives, animals — those real, imagined or animatronic like the Joy for All therapy pets — often take on the role of trusted companion. They can teach us responsibility and empathy, provide comfort and help us learn more about ourselves and our emotions. The best part: Animal companions do not care what we look like, how rich we are, what job we hold or how successful and popular we might be. At any given moment, they are just happy to be with us, eager to help us be the best version of ourselves that we can be.

This post was adapted from an article in the Winter-Spring 2024 issue of The Henry Ford Magazine.