Returning home to a faithful companion brings us immense joy, but the role of pets goes beyond friendship and adventure (NIH, 2018). These furry companions have the potential to alleviate stress, depression, and anxiety, promote physical and social activities, facilitate playfulness, reduce feelings of loneliness, and even aid in the social and emotional development of children (Martin et al., 2021). Additionally, pets offer us the invaluable gift of unconditional love. According to a survey conducted by PetKeen (2013), approximately 60% of households in South Africa own at least one pet.
To shed light on the conditions that define safe therapeutic environments involving animals, the National Institute of Health (NIH, 2018) conducts research aimed at understanding children’s perception and interaction with animals, as well as the overall contribution of pets to human wellbeing.
Human-animal interaction is a relatively new field of study, with the majority of research indicating positive health outcomes (Brooks, 2018). This was particularly evident during the challenging times of the Coronavirus crisis, marked by extended periods of isolation and hardship (National Geographic, 2021).
Animals Assisting People
Experts agree that animals inherently provide support and comfort. Horses and therapy dogs, in particular, excel in this regard. Research indicates that these furry companions, when introduced to patients in clinical settings, help alleviate stress and anxiety (Brooks, 2018).
Dr Ann Berger, a researcher and physician in the field, conducted studies demonstrating how horses and dogs lovingly engage with individuals facing various struggles, especially those with terminal illnesses. Dr Berger’s work emphasizes the mindful connection between humans and animals, showcasing their ability to help patients manage pain and find purpose. Mindfulness, with its focus on awareness, compassion, attention, and intention, aligns naturally with the innate qualities of horses and dogs, whereas humans often need to develop these traits (NIH, 2018).
The Impact of Pets on Health and Wellbeing
Researchers agree that owning pets can have various positive impacts on wellbeing, including:
- Uplifting Mood
- Easing Feelings of Loneliness
- Alleviating Symptoms of Depression and Anxiety
- Reducing Blood Pressure and Cholesterol Levels
- Enhancing Cognitive Function in Older Adults
- Facilitating Healthy Development in Children
- Stimulating the Release of Serotonin and Dopamine, the “Feel-Good” Hormones
- Boosting Motivation for Outdoor Activities
- Providing Stimulation for Young Minds and Bodies
- Fostering Curiosity and Imagination in Children
- Offering Sensory Stress Relief
- Adding Structure to Daily Routines
- Fulfilling the Fundamental Need for Human Touch
Dr. Layla Esposito, who oversees the NIH’s Human-Animal Interaction Research Program, emphasizes that there is no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to how a pet can assist individuals with specific conditions. For example, owning a dog can be beneficial for individuals aiming to increase exercise, while stroking a cat or observing fish can promote a sense of calmness for those seeking stress reduction (NIH, 2018; Martin et al., 2021).
Benefits of Pets for Children
Research also explores the safety of introducing animals into clinical settings, considering the potential exposure to germs. Ongoing studies examine the safety of bringing dogs to visit children with cancer. Dogs can also aid in the realm of learning. For instance, one study revealed that dogs assist children with ADHD in improving their attention span, social skills, peer engagement, and cooperation. Additionally, studies indicate a decrease in behavioural issues, along with expanded empathy, vocabulary, and reduced separation anxiety when caregivers are absent (NIH, 2018).
Furthermore, children with autism spectrum disorder experienced decreased anxiety and improved social interactions with their peers after engaging with guinea pigs for only 10 minutes. The unconditional acceptance offered by animals likely contributes to this sense of calm in children. Pets can also be integrated into sensory integration activities (NIH, 2018).
Surprisingly, a recent study showed that adolescents with diabetes who cared for fish were more responsible in monitoring their blood glucose levels compared to those who didn’t have a fish to care for. Consistently checking blood glucose levels is crucial for maintaining their health (NIH, 2018).
While pets offer a wide range of benefits, they may not be suitable for everyone. Early exposure to pets may help protect young children from developing allergies and asthma. However, for individuals with existing animal-related allergies, having pets in the home can present challenges (Hunt, 2007).
The Benefits of Pets for Older Adults
In addition to the positive impact on health, owning a pet plays a crucial role in healthy aging by helping individuals find meaning and joy in life. The act of caring for a per brings pleasure, boosts morale, optimism, and self-worth. Adopting a pet, particularly an older one from a shelter, adds to the sense of fulfilment in older adults.
Furthermore, pets may boost vitality by encouraging playfulness, laughter, and exercise. These physical activities have the potential to enhance the immune system, increase energy levels, and provide opportunities for social engagement (Saunders et al., 2017).
Is Owning a Pet Right for You?
Owning a pet is a significant commitment that requires time, financial resources, and energy, along with a calm home environment characterized by consistency and routine. Fostering a pet or assisting a friend with their pet can help determine whether owning one is suitable for you. Despite the numerous benefits, it is essential to remember that a pet is not a miraculous solution for health issues.
When considering getting a pet, take into account:
- The available outdoor space
- Your level of physical activity
- The amount of time you can dedicate to your pet
- The financial responsibilities associated with veterinary care, pet insurance, food, and toys. Some charities offer low-cost veterinary services, but they may be limited to specific areas and have financial criteria.
Shelter and Rescue Animals
Pets adopted from shelters or rescue groups, including dogs, cats, and horses, make excellent companions (Robinson et al., 2017). Most of these animals end up in shelters through no fault of their own. Rescue groups strive to find suitable homes for unwanted or abandoned pets, often rescuing them from shelters where they would otherwise face euthanasia. By volunteering and considering adoption from a shelter or rescue organization, we can provide a loving home for a deserving pet.
We are reminded of the mutual benefits to animal and human with pet adoption. Including alleviation of stress and anxiety, expanded empathy, improved physical health, and support with healing trauma symptoms. People from all walks of life testify how animals have helped them with emotional pain, uncertainty, and ill-health.
With shelter animals that are left behind, there is an opportunity to connect human resilience with animal resilience. A local organization called DARG did just that with their Underdog Project. This project paired dogs and people who have been left behind by society. Evident of a powerful and innovative intervention that meets mutual needs and healing love for both parties (DARG., n.d).
Embracing Pawsitive Therapy
Animals have the power to help us lead mentally healthier lives, however we are mindful that they are not a miracle cure for health concerns. Ongoing research will continue to explore the diverse health effects of pet ownership, striving to establish safe and beneficial practices for both animals and humans.
About the Author
Lizé finds herself based in Cape Town near the ocean and adventures. She is a Registered Counsellor by profession, and a Work Integrated Learning Coordinator with the SACAP Online Campus. Her passion lies in the marrying of psychology and education, as she hopes her work will allow for psychoeducational resources as well as mental health education and services to be made available to the marginalized. Lizé is a wannabee writer, digital content designer and considers herself the best pet-parent in town.