Most pet owners don’t need reminding. Animals make people feel good. But we’re talking about more than feeling glad they’re around. Your favorite animal can make you healthy and help you stay that way. You may be surprised at just how many ways a pet can improve our health.
When Jerry lost his job and spent three months looking for work, it was a rough period in his life. “I spent a lot of time going on job interviews and sending out resumes, with nothing panning out,” he recalls. “Some days, the only thing that kept me smiling was my dog licking my face and wagging his tail. And often that was just what it took to put me in a positive frame-of-mind before an interview.”
Therapists have been known to prescribe a pet as a way of dealing with and recovering from depression. No one loves you more unconditionally than your pet. And a pet will listen to you talk for as long as you want to talk. Petting a cat or dog has a calming effect. And taking care of a pet–walking with it, grooming it, playing with it–takes you out of yourself and helps you feel better about the way you spend your time.
Rachel says when she’s fighting the blahs, all she has to do is watch her three kittens playing together. “They like to jump in and out of paper bags and hide behind furniture, as if they’re playing a game of hide-and-seek with each other,” she says. “It’s really entertaining. If I’m having a bad day, I can’t help but feel cheered up watching them play.”
It only takes a few minutes with a dog or cat or watching fish swim to feel less anxious and less stressed. Your body actually goes through physical changes in that time that make a difference in your mood. The level of cortisol, a hormone associated with stress, is lowered. And the production of serotonin, a chemical associated with well-being, is increased. Reducing stress saves your body wear and tear.
Most pet owners would agree: On days when you feel depressed, hopeless, down, lonely, sad, discouraged, or just have the “blahs,” spending time with a friendly dog or cat can be a real pick-me-up. Then there are the documented health benefits of pet ownership. Many studies have proven the link between a healthier, longer life and pet ownership. Though the studies have largely focused on the effects of dogs and cats, other species provide benefits as well. Keeping a pet can give you a sense of purpose and the feeling of being needed, a feeling that is especially important for people who live alone.
And specially trained dogs can perform tasks that let people with Parkinson’s disease maintain their independence. They can pick up dropped items or fetch requested ones. They can provide balance support, open and close doors, and turn lights on with their paws. They can also sense when someone with Parkinson’s is “freezing” and touch the foot to let the person keep walking. Really it is just all so amazing.
And coming home to your family, whether you have one pet or many, gives you something to look forward to. Pets decrease feelings of loneliness and isolation, explains Alan Beck, Ph.D., director of the Center for Human-Animal Bond at the School of Veterinary Medicine at Purdue University. “A pet is someone to share your life with,” he says. “There’s a lot of people in this world who live alone. As a society, many of us live in apartments in big cities. We may not know our neighbors. We may be separated geographically from our extended families. Maybe we’re divorced or widowed and live alone. And so for people in these circumstance, pets can help fill the ‘people void’ in their lives.”
Key to a healthy mind is staying engaged with others. And pet owners have a tendency to want to talk with other pet owners. A dog is a conversation waiting to happen. People, especially other people with dogs, will stop and talk with you when they see you walking your pet. Visiting a dog park lets you socialize with other owners while your dog socializes with their dogs.
Many people relax by watching their fish as they swim serenely around a scenic aquarium or a fish bowl. The multicolored hues can be mesmerizing and has a soothing effect. The same is true with a bird, reptile or amphibian.
Psychologist Judith Siegel, conducted a study showing how pets help people with depression. Dr. Siegel says her study, one of the largest ever undertaken on pet ownership and depression, shows “there really is something psychologically beneficial about owning and caring for a pet.” The benefit is especially pronounced when people are strongly attached to their pets and have few close confidants, she adds.
“Pet ownership is not necessarily a substitute for human support,” Dr. Siegel says, “but it’s another way to express and receive love.” And that may be just what it necessary to make a difficult situation a little more bearable.
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