Pet Introduction into the Human Family: A Systemic Approach
World Small Animal Veterinary Association World Congress Proceedings, 2009
Ceres Berger Faraco, Med. Vet., MSc, PhD
Santa Cecília, Porto Alegre, RS, CEP

This presentation aims at family systems which include both individuals and pets as members. We will examine how theoretical patterns and systemic intervention practices applied to the family can enlighten certain still obscure aspects related to small animal practice.

From the meeting between people and their pets a new family is born and follows the same rules and expectations of that family.

It is worth mentioning, as in previous studies about animal cognition that the dog has developed "functionally analogous to humans" behavioral traits (not present in other animals), in order to adapt to the common environment; we are here referring to the ability to understand human gestures and, by doing so communicate with them (Miklósi, 2005).

When investigating traits developed by dogs, Miklósi et al. (2003) suggest that one of the main communicative differences between domestic dogs and wolves is the ability to understand visual clues of their human owners. That behavior has the function of starting and keeping the communicative action like the human systems. The same authors believe that a positive feedback (phylogenetic and ontogenetic) has led the species to these complex communicative forms, materializing human-dog communication.

It is relevant mentioning that there is a similarity between the social organization and communication systems of both species. Humans as well as dogs live in large family groups, grant their puppies and newly born parental care so that they can survive and they depend on their parents for a long time. Thus being, it is not surprising that humans include dogs in their social groups and that humans be included in dogs groups (Overall, 1997; Askew, 2003). When treating the family members and, specially pets as its representative (as an expression of the things that happen in that family daily life) we are approaching circumstances which articulate to interpersonal relation, the functioning of this group and to the role performed by individuals in the family unit.

We believe that the role of a veterinarian is more than just treating and preventing both behavioral and physical impairment in patients, it should extend to emotional as well as family functioning grounds.

The betterment in the assistance, diagnosis and problems or conflicts originated in family-pet relationship should permeate the understanding of physical and social environment, in the urban contemporary family.

The urban contemporary family is an invisible set of functional demands which organize the way by which the family individuals work. Such demands represent challenge to all: to the human family, to the pet and the veterinary as well.

The animal admission brings expectations which are not always materialized. Frustration and failure in the coexistence of small pets and people may often originate from the lack of information about care, education, development, behavioral characteristics and wellness of the very pets (dogs) and, sometimes by that invisible weaving of family expectations and meanings not related to the pet, but which are given to them (Lantzman, 2008).

Cohen (2002) states that for those people living in big cities, pets are considered family members and as so have a specific function which is to give comfort and attention to the other family members. The researcher claims that pets take a different space from humans in the family structure and highlights their functioning according to the family system.

Concerning that multispecies family, Bowen (1978) suggests the existence of an emotional family system which can be made of the extended family members, other people having no blood relation and pets. In such a system, the bond between family members is emotional other than blood. This author considers the family those who are emotionally attached (Faraco, 2008).

Beck e Katcher (1996) shares this same opinion and have identified that most people who have pets believe that the family could be built with other than human species. Those researchers state pets may be more important than the human members in the family, even part of the self. That means, pets are part of the self, especially, in child development. Besides, other researchers who also analyze multispecies families believe one should review "family" as a concept (Cain, 1993; Soares, 1985).

As in all family relationship, living with pets implies new responsibilities, tasks, commitment and dedication towards somebody different from a human family member. Pets do not always correspond to our expectations and may show unpleasant behavior which may annoy people. Histories of fear, confusion, sadness and anger are frequent and become the real complaint of pet owners causing them look for help in the veterinary practices. That fact generates a very particular context to the veterinary studies and actions: the pet (its evolutive history, several behavioral categories), embedded in the family context. The understanding of this interface favors a more effective intervention for both the patient and the customer, contributing to the welfare of all.


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Speaker Information
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Ceres Berger Faraco, Med.Vet., MSc, PhD
Santa Cecilia, Porto Alegre

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