Those of us who own pets know they make us happy
By Bonnie Bondesio
Nothing compares to the joy of coming home to a loyal companion. The unconditional love of a pet can do much more than just give you the enjoyment of its company. If you want to increase physical activity to lose weight, you can walk a dog or ride a horse to achieve your goal. “Walk a Hound, lose a Pound” they say. If your goal is reducing stress, sometimes watching fish swim can result in a feeling of calmness. So, there is no “one type fits all”. Animals can serve as a source of comfort and support. Dogs are especially good at this. Dogs are very “present” - their attention is focused on the person all the time. Dogs have helped launch an entirely new field of medical research over the past three decades or so.
One of the earliest studies found that heart attack patients who owned pets lived longer than those who did not. Pet owners were far more likely to complete cardiac rehabilitation than those who did not own a pet. Another study found that petting one’s own dog could reduce blood pressure.
Scientists are looking at what the potential physical and mental health benefits are. Other studies have found that animals can reduce loneliness, increase feelings of social support, and boost your mood. Studies have found that interacting with animals can increase people’s level of the hormone “oxytocin”. This hormone helps us feel happy and trusting and may also have longer-term human health benefits. “Oxytocin” has some powerful effects for us in the body’s ability to be in a state of readiness to heal and grow new cells. This predisposes us to an environment in our own bodies where we can be healthier. Likewise, interacting with animals has been shown to decrease levels of cortisol (a stress-related hormone).
Animals can also act as therapists themselves or facilitate therapy. Horses have become popular therapists for people with disabilities. The beauty of the horse is that it can be therapeutic in so many ways. Some people might benefit from the connection and the relationship-building with the horse and with their environment. Others may benefit physically, from the movements, and build that core strength, and body awareness and muscle memory. Several surveys have assessed the association between pet ownership and depression. A more recent study found that cats alleviated negative moods equally well as a human partner. Pets appear to buffer the impact of stress on some owners. Seniors in old age homes and those with Alzheimer’s disease or Dementia appear to benefit from both pet ownership and Animal Assisted Therapy in the areas of mood, loneliness, and social behaviour.
There is emerging evidence of the possible benefits of pet attachment for children. One study found that dogs can help children with ADHD focus their attention. Researchers enrolled two groups of children diagnosed with ADHD into 12-week group therapy sessions. The first group of kids read to a therapy dog once a week for 30 minutes. The second group read to puppets that looked like dogs. Kids who read to the real animals showed better social skills and more sharing, cooperation, and volunteering. They also had fewer behavioural problems.
My suggestion to all of you who suffer from some kind of stress related condition as a result of the “lockdown” situation that we all had to endure for the last weeks: get a pet - dog, cat, parrot, fish, rabbit, horse, anything that makes you feel warm and fuzzy, and spend some time with it. You will be surprised at the results.