Photo credit: Jamie Street via Unsplash.

Our experiences suggest strongly that many animals — mostly but not exclusively mammalian — possess an innate quality that enables them to relate to and connect with humans. Cats and dogs, our most common domesticated pets (estimated at 135 million in the U.S.)1, provide countless examples of the relationships that can develop across the human-animal divide. If the number of pets alone isn’t enough evidence of their importance to our lives, consider how much Americans spend on their pets — estimated at $136.8 billion in 2022.2

Considering the importance we place on our relationship with pets, what is our point of connection with them? A reasonable answer would be our shared qualities of mind, will, and emotions, or what could be termed “soulish” qualities.

Not Merely Animals

By drawing attention to the shared attributes between humans and animals that enhance our interactions, I am not suggesting that this supports any contention that humans are merely animals. Animals can relate to us by sharing certain aspects of a subset of our characteristics, but the overlap is far from complete. While animals share with us the quality of intelligence, we transcend them in significant ways, including our abstract reasoning, language and mathematical abilities, our unlimited creativity, and our ability to visualize and instantiate novel outcomes. Another notably unique human trait is our ubiquitous spiritual nature.

Spirituality is a significant and universal aspect of human experience. The specific content of spiritual belief, practice, and experience varies, but all cultures have a concept of an ultimate, transcendent, sacred, or divine force.3

Worship of the divine is not an observable behavior among animals.

“Winning” the Competition

Does our ability to relate to animals and their responsiveness to human interactions indicate intelligent design in the order of things on Earth? From an evolutionary point of view, human dominance among all species on Earth resulted from our “winning” the competition for survival of the fittest. In this view, an innate animosity could be expected to persist between humans and other animal species. 

Now, some Darwinian aficionados might object to this conclusion by appealing to the genealogical distance between humans and animals, arguing that “time heals all wounds.” If this is so, the soothing of ancient animosities has occurred so effectively that it has been replaced with a distinct inclination to relationship found between humans and many animal species. Interestingly, animals that are conducive to domestication by humans are those that support a mutually beneficial relationship with humans. 

But once domestication got rolling, we didn’t just change the animals we brought into our lives; they changed us, too. Humanity would look very different today — and possibly not have thrived to the extent that it has — without the assistance and support of domesticated animals to help us hunt, bear burdens, provide food and materials for clothing and tools, and so much more.4

Earliest domestication occurred with dogs (approximately 15,000 years ago)5, used in assisting humans with hunting; goats, pigs, and sheep probably came next (9,500 BCE), followed by cattle and horses, with their well-known, mutually beneficial relationships with humans.6 Other domesticated animals include some that might not immediately come to mind, including, chickens, guinea pigs, water buffaloes, pigeons, rabbits, and fancy rats.

Aside from the more utilitarian examples of domesticated animals used for food, bearing burdens, or transportation, the breadth of therapeutic human-animal interactions is profound.

The variety of possible types of interactions that occur between humans and animals results in an equally rich variety of effects on human health and well-being, including behavioral, educational, physiological, and/or psychological effects.7

Our pets provide us what is termed an affiliative relationship, and its benefits are familiar to most people. Even when I was in grade school, I can vividly remember the feelings of contentment and joy that I experienced when two little black kittens my family had recently acquired fell asleep in a purring huddle on my lap as I sat in the sunshine on the milk box on the back porch.

Pets entail a strong emotional attachment that facilitates the exchange of physical and psychological benefits. Pet ownership correlates with a number of health benefits, such as increased physical activity and lower baseline blood pressure (McCune et al., 2014).8

More targeted human-animal interactions have become popular in recent years:

Human-Animal Interaction encompasses many relationships with animals, including companion animals, emotional support animals, working animals, and any Animal-Assisted Intervention.9

Animal-assisted education occurs with younger students and those with special needs but can also be used with college students at exam time to reduce stress.10 As noted, therapeutic relationships with animals are not limited to mammals. Indeed, a man and his emotional support alligator, Wally, made headlines last week when they tried to attend a baseball game together in Philadelphia.

An Extremely Wide Scope

The scope of human physical, emotional, and mental needs that are benefited by animal interactions is extremely wide.

Animals have been used in therapies for children with autism, adults with spinal cord dysfunction, older adults with dementia, and prison inmates.

Service animals are individually trained to help disabled persons overcome specific disabilities. They promote a more independent livelihood, facilitating, for example, mobility for the visually impaired, low blood sugar detection for diabetics, or support for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Human-animal interactions of all types elicit positive psychological effects in clinical and nonclinical populations across the lifespan.11

Futuristic depictions of human societies in science fiction movies and many books often portray a world without pets. Star Wars seems to have replaced animal pets with functional robotic companions — for example, the resourceful and intuitive R2-D2. Pets were conspicuously absent in the original Star Trek shows, but the crew shows the effects of their deprivation when tribbles pullulate aboard the Enterprise and the crew absolutely luxuriates in their company.

What is it about animals that gives us the positive benefits from our interactions with them? While human-to-human relationships are vital to our lives, sometimes our human relationships can get complicated. Animals relate to us in a refreshingly uncomplicated manner. We don’t feel judged by animals. They are rarely in a hurry. While they certainly have their own needs, they often seem to be able to sense when we have particular physical or emotional needs and their calming presence with the affection they give helps us towards well-being.

Many people whose lives have been enhanced by their interactions with animals (myself included) could hardly imagine a life devoid of such human-animal companionship. As evidence for intelligent design, the provision of animals that assist our lives in so many ways stands out as not merely fortunate, but profoundly caring.


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  2. Pet Ownership Statistics and Facts in 2023 – Forbes Advisor.
  3. Ryan M. Niemiec, Pninit Russo-Netzer, Kenneth I. Pargament, “The Decoding of the Human Spirit: A Synergy of Spirituality and Character Strengths Toward Wholeness,” Front. Psychol., Vol. 11 (2020) .
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  9. Human Animal Interaction | College of Veterinary Medicine (


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