Would you like to feel less stressed, to be in great physical health, to laugh more, and to be loved unconditionally? What I am prescribing are the benefits of the human-animal bond. We live in a high tech-low touch society. Our communication is constant with emails, voice mail, text messaging, and automated company phones. We are never “not connected” and for some people, that is a source of stress. However, we can go for extended periods of time without actually talking to a real person in our 24/7 world. We need our connections with animals for many reasons. Bonds can be formed with a wide array of animals including dogs, cats, horses, birds, or even exotic animals like snakes. Our pets are with us through life passages such as marriage, family additions, divorce, loss of jobs, and death of loved ones. Their influence and impact on us can be profound.
The American Veterinary Medical Association Census of 2007 reported that 37% of American households have dogs and 32% of households have cats. However, cats outnumber dogs, 81 million to 72 million. According to the American Association of Human-Animal Bond Veterinarians, the human-animal bond is a mutually beneficial and dynamic relationship between people and other animals. Founded in 1982, the Center for the Human-Animal Bond at the Purdue University School of Veterinary Medicine explores the dynamic relationships between people, animals and their environment. The Delta Foundation was established in 1977 to understand the quality of the relationship between pet owners, pets, and care givers, both human and veterinary. Today, the Delta Society is known for the Human-Animal Health Connection.
Pets can offer a wide variety of physical and psychological benefits to adults and children. What are the physical benefits? Numerous studies have been conducted to research the affects of pets in our lives. Highlights of a few studies include the following results. Pet owners have lower blood pressure as well as lower triglyceride and cholesterol levels than non-owners. Pet owners have better physical health due to exercise with their pets. Dog ownership increases the odds for survival in persons who have had a heart attack from 1 in 15 to 1 in 87. Heart attack sufferers who own a dog have an eight times better chance of surviving one year as opposed to non-owners. Seniors who own dogs go to the doctor less often than those who do not have dogs. Medication costs dropped from an average of $3.80 per patient per day to $1.18 per patient per day when nursing homes in Texas, Missouri, and New York allowed for pets and plants to be introduced into the patient’s environment.
What are the psychological benefits? Pets are stress busters. “Can you really look at a sleeping cat and be tense?” asks Jane Pauley. They also help us relax and focus our attention on them and not our worries and concerns. When I return home from a challenging work day that was topped off with navigating stop and go traffic snarls, my cat, Lexie Lee, changes my mood immediately. I bet my blood pressure drops as well! When we are with our animals, we can take our masks off and let our guard down and just be true to ourselves. My beloved cat, Tatianna, did not care if my hair was unkempt, my spirits depressed, or my face a fright! She was always by my side, blue eyes focused, content to sit and purr on my lap. Pets lift our spirits by decreasing feelings of loneliness and isolation.
Pets make us laugh. All I have to do is get out Lexie Lee’s feather toy that dangles on a pole, swing it around the room a few times, and watch her acrobatics in catching the feathers, and I am laughing. Pets offer us unconditional love. Just being able to pet them and having something to touch is an important part of our psychological welfare. When I need a break from my high tech-low touch work, I know Lexie Lee will eagerly join me on the couch to be petted or brushed. Pets give us a safe environment to express our thoughts, fears, and feelings, and we will not be judged, but supported by their mere presence. We can rehearse difficult and challenging conversations with them like asking for a raise or dealing with a family problem. I have rehearsed public speeches with Lexie Lee, and she never heckles me! Pets help us feel safer in our homes—especially when we have dogs to guard us. We feel less likely to be a victim of crime when we are walking a dog.
Pets teach children to be caregivers, to be empathetic, and to learn responsibility. Pets can help us adjust to serious illness or death—especially children who face losing a parent. They can help all of us learn to love again after devastating personal losses. I credit Tatianna for standing by me through the entrance and exit of people and pets in my life including the deaths of my father and boyfriend as well as the deaths of beloved cats, Noelle, Taittinger, and Marnie. Tatianna had an ongoing repertoire of joy to share with me and was destined to draw on it indefinitely for my benefit and healing.
In nursing homes, residents are more apt to smile, talk, reach out to people, be attentive, and be alert. They are less depressed if pets are on the premises. Pets can also give the elderly person a reason for living and a reason to get out of bed since the animal needs daily attention. My ninety-year-old mother’s schedule revolves around feeding and caring for her companion dog, Packer.
When I have been at the computer keyboard for hours, answered one hundred emails for the day, and attempted to return voice mail messages, only to leave another voice mail, my bond with Lexie Lee is a calming and centering force in my life. She is my stress buster. With her hanging over my lap or sleeping a few feet from my desk, I am truly connected to love and to life.