Whoever coined the phrase “man’s best friend” was on to something. Dogs—and cats and birds and other critters—have well-documented properties for boosting our well-being.
When psychologists from Miami University in Ohio and Saint Louis University in Missouri compared pet owners to people who did not own a pet in three different studies, people with pets scored higher on self-esteem, were more physically fit, and tended to be less lonely, less fearful and less preoccupied.
One of the experiments showed that thinking about a beloved pet is as effective as thinking about a human friend in helping someone feel better after experiencing rejection. In fact, research shows that the bond people have with their dog can be as strong as the bond with their closest relative.
“A third were closer to the pet dog than to any human family member,” says Sandra Baker, PhD, who co-authored that study. “Wherever I speak around the world, dog owners aren’t surprised by that.”
Barker is director of The Center for Human-Animal Interaction at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine, where she holds a named chair in psychiatry. She’s been involved in a body of research documenting the power of even 15 minutes with a therapy dog in cutting levels of stress, anxiety and fear for both psychiatric inpatients and hospital staff.
That reduced stress response, whether with therapy dogs in health care settings or pet owners “in the wild,” has been documented across a range of physiological measures, including brain waves, blood pressure, heart rate, and cortisol, the so-called “stress hormone.”
Aubrey Fine, PhD, editor of the Handbook on Animal-Assisted Therapy and author of several books on the benefits of human-animal ties, notes that dogs are very attuned to nonverbal behavior and therefore responsive to emotional distress.
In his most recent book, Our Faithful Companions, he writes about how the comforting attachment of a golden retriever named Magic helped his wife through breast cancer. Like many people who study or have companion animals, Fine talks about the emotional boost from a dog’s faithful devotion—the excitement on seeing you, the total acceptance without judgment.
“That unconditional sense of love gives people a sense of hope that they can persevere,” says Fine, a professor at California State Polytechnic University-Pomona. “I remember my wife said, probably a couple months post-treatment, ‘Magic is the hope that I need to get on to the next day.’“
Cats and dogs don’t have exclusive bragging rights, though. Fine first got intrigued by “pet power” in the 1970s when he saw how children he was treating responded to a gerbil named Sasha. Clients in his private practice engage with his cockatoos and other birds, and even his bearded dragon (a type of lizard).
“Fish are very relaxing,” he adds, referring to research that shows watching fish tanks decreases stress hormones.
A goldfish in the cardiac unit was the catalyst for People-Animal Connection, a volunteer program based at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles. “People noticed that it had an effect not just on the patients, but on the staff as well,” explains program coordinator Stephen Goldstein.
Now People-Animal Connection has therapy dog-and-owner pairs visiting almost every unit of the hospital, including the psychiatric institution. The organization also arranges for people to spend time with their own pets, which combats loneliness and raises spirits.
“Words can’t quite describe the effect,” muses Goldstein. “The dogs provide something that medicine cannot.”
For his part, Goldstein has a cat waiting in his condo when he gets home after work. He finds solace in stroking Athena’s fur.
“There’s scientific evidence that petting, whether a cat or a dog, reduces blood pressure,” he explains.
However, getting a pet isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. Some of us just aren’t “animal people.” Others may have issues with health, time, money, or housing that make having a pet problematic.
“We can’t make a blanket recommendation that everyone should get a dog. It really depends on the family’s circumstances and their ability to care for the animal,” notes Megan Mueller, PhD, a research assistant professor at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University.
She also points out that the emotional benefits of animal companionship depend on the quality of the connection between human and animal. In one recent study of children in military families, she found a deep attachment to the family pet is associated with greater resilience when a parent was deployed—“an acute stressor,” she says. The simple presence of an animal in the home wasn’t as important as “what kind of relationship someone has with a pet,” Mueller says.
The deeper the bond, however, the more painful it can be when it’s broken. When we invited readers to share the ways companion animals add to their well-being, several alluded to the destabilizing effects of losing a beloved companion. As with so many triggers, having a coping plan in place can moderate the fallout.
“Most people are surprised and shocked by how intensely they feel grief after the loss of a pet,” says Barker, who is known for her work in supporting bereaved owners. “Pets don’t live as long as humans do. It’s important to remember that and prepare as the pet ages.”
She suggests thinking in advance about ways to commemorate the pet, such as planting a tree or writing a poem.
Of course, we also received many heartfelt and heart-warming accounts of how animals contribute to our lives. We present some of those stories here.
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