The Incredible Healing Power of Pets
By Bob Aronson
There’s something about petting a dog or having a cat nestle in your lap that brings one a certain serenity or at least a warm feeling. It’s been shown medically that the company of a pet can bring blood pressure down, lessen depression, calm frayed nerves and even help to settle an upset stomach.
Is there anything cuter than a puppy or kitten? Even at their destructive worst they are cute. When we got Reilly, our Soft Coated Wheaten Terrier as a puppy she loved to shred paper and those razor sharp puppy teeth can do that in a split second.
Look at this mess. She had gotten a hold of some toilet paper and made a mess of our living room, there were shreds of paper everywhere. And…when we found her amidst that pile of blowing and drifting tissue, she looked up and wagged her tail, proud of her accomplishment and willing to destroy even more if it would please us. Look at this picture, how could you possibly do anything but laugh upon seeing this mess.
Besides the laughs, the warm fuzzy feelings and the love what can pets do for you? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the company of a pet can help people who are living with depression. Why is that? I think it’s because they ask for very little and give unlimited affection and companionship. Maybe it’s because cats, dogs and other companion creatures offer unlimited affection and nonjudgmental companionship. They lift our spirits and lower our stress. They counteract symptoms such as isolation, rumination and lethargy. Even just looking at our two dogs Reilly and Ziggy (mini schnauzer) and how much they like each other gives one a warm all over feeling.
People who study human behavior tell us that caring for animals is an ego boost, a shot in the self-esteem department that gives people a sense of purpose, of being needed and necessary. Knowing that another living being depends on us for sustenance and protection gives our self-worth a good shot in the arm.
According to a 2009 study published in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry.Jennifer P. Wisdom, PhD, an associate professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University Medical Center and several of her colleagues surveyed 177 nearly 200 patients with varying degrees of mental illness to determine how the recovery process works. The study concluded that besides offering the boost in self-worth, Pets can serve as either substitute or additional family members. Yes, family. If you’ve ever had a pet you know that you consider them family— because they are.
For some people the only love in their lives is the love shared between them and their companion animals. Now, I don’t know who invented the term companion animal but it is perfect because they are more than possessions, they are friends, companions, confidants and you could even say, therapists. If you can find a single human being who is a better listener that your dog or cat or bird or whatever I’ll buy you lunch. They never object, they don’t interrupt they just listen very carefully and wag their tails or curl up close to you. Their affection washes over you like a hot shower after a long run and all the troubles of the day run into the drain.
Our dogs are happy to see us at least a dozen times a day. If I leave to go the store, I get a reception when I come home that is as though I had been gone for a year. I get the same reception if I go to the mail box and come back in a minute later. Open the door and Ziggy is running in circles with joy and Reilly is licking my hand. They are always glad to see me and you know there is nothing phony about it…they really are glad to see you every time they see you.
Here’s a classic video…it’s a must see and it’s short. A soldier returns from a tour of duty in Afghanistan and the first one to greet him is his dog. This will bring tears to your eyes. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ysKAVyXi0J4
Not only are pets good for your mental health, they can be of immeasurable assistance in maintaining your physical health as well. Dogs need to be walked and that means you need to walk with them. You may not think of it this way but your dog is helping you get exercise you might not get otherwise. Every medical study done on the value of exercise says the same thing, even a casual walk is good for you. You don’t have to sprint or run or jog, just walk with Fido and you are getting a health benefit. I haven’t seen any studies on the matter but I’ll bet that dog owners walk more than people who don’t have them. And…I’ve read that people who have pets, or companion animals also have lower blood pressure and decreased cortisol…that’s the stuff that causes stress.
Most nursing homes or extended care facilities allow visits from animals. When my mom was in a nursing home we used to bring our terrier/Chihuahua mixed dog Lady with us. Mom loved seeing her and lady, who could be a cranky little dog, loved seeing mom. I think they both loved all the attention they got. Other nursing home residents always stopped and wanted to pet Lady. One little 12 pound dog could make a whole nursing home happy at least for a few minutes.
“Okay,” you say, “I’ll buy all the benefits of having a pet but I can’t. I’m not home much, I travel a lot, I just can’t care for one.” Well, you can benefit from animals anyway. Alan Beck who is the Director of the Center for Human-Animal Bonding at Purdue University suggests the following:
Visit a zoo. Farms that open their barns to visitors and even petting zoos can also be an entrée into the animal world.
- Put up a birdfeeder in your backyard or outside your apartment window. You could also get out to a park to enjoy birds, chipmunks and other critters in their natural setting.
- Set up a home aquarium. It may take a little work to get the pH levels balanced, but an established fish tank is fairly easy to maintain.
- Walk a friend’s dog. You could also offer to pet-sit for dogs, cats, fish and so forth when friends and family members go on vacation, but be sure you’re ready to take on the responsibility.
- Volunteer at an animal shelter. This is a win-win-win. The shelter gets extra hands to groom, play with or clean up after their charges; you get the feel-good effects of being around animals, and the abandoned pets benefit from your attention.
If none of that appeals to you how about a good movie. One that tugs at your heart strings and makes you feel good. Try any one of these.
This giant but adorable St. Bernard’s real name was Chris.
Buddy — from the “Air Bud” movies — was his real name, and he also played Comet in Full House!
Marley, of “Marley and Me” was played by 18 different dogs. All really freaking cute.
You can find more great “Feel good” dog movies at http://www.buzzfeed.com/lyapalater/30-of-the-greatest-movie-dogs
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Now retired and living in Jacksonville, Florida with his wife Robin he spends his time advocating for patients with end stage diseases and for organ recipients. He is also active in helping his wife with her art business at art festivals and on her Rockin Robin Prints site on Etsy.
Bob is a former journalist, Governor’s Communication Director and international communications consultant.