Ask any devoted animal owner about their pet and they will likely regale you with tales of their devoted dog’s uncanny ability to instantly and accurately judge the character of strangers, or of their intuitive and empathetic cat who can always tell when the owner has the blues. Even a prized ferret who can pick the winning lottery numbers. We seem to have the tendency to anthropomorphize - attribute all manner of “human” characteristics to our pets, from the mundane to the sublime, the realistic to the ridiculous. Regardless of how one views the sometimes fantastic claims of enthusiastic pet owners, the bond that is formed between pet and owner is a very real and powerful one – and it appears, a healthy one as well. It seems that the crazy cat lady, or the strange fellow who refuses to attend any function that won’t allow his faithful pooch may not be so crazy, or strange after all…at least not from the standpoint of their own physical and mental health.
A wide variety of medical practitioners and animal experts now recognize (and utilize) the positive benefits of the human-animal relationship that many pet-owners have probably always intuitively known. According to Dr. Daniel Joffe, a Canadian veterinarian who specializes in companion animals, “The benefits of pet ownership are real - physically, mentally and psychosocially.” Animal assisted therapy (AAT ) is now commonly used in a wide variety of health care situations that include the care of the elderly, chronically ill patients, patients suffering from autism, Asperger syndrome, depression and other psychological conditions, as well as Alzheimer’s disease and various forms of dementia, to name just a few. While both the condition being treated and the type of animal being used are varied, the underlying principles of why this therapy works are generally common and even simple. For patients who are mobile, taking a pet for a walk is not only good physical exercise but can also provide an opportunity to socialize with others. For patients who are housebound or to some degree isolated, interaction with a pet helps combat loneliness and feelings of hopelessness and increases positive motivation and feelings of happiness. Animals can help people with autism or Asperger learn relationship building skills and positive interaction. The variety of programs employing AAT is stunning, with new applications being developed regularly. One rather unique and interesting program known as the Cell Dogs Program teaches carefully selected inmates how to obedience-train “shelter” dogs that would otherwise be euthanized. By providing inmates with the opportunity to redirect their focus from themselves, learn a marketable skill, and return something positive to the community, the program plays a vital role in the rehabilitation of inmates.
Whether we are suffering from a specific ailment or medical condition, find ourselves in a difficult life circumstance or even if we are otherwise healthy and well-adjusted, the act of caring for a pet can ultimately be one of the most satisfying, and therapeutic experiences we can have. It may even prolong your life! A recent study conducted by Dr. Adnan Qureshi of the Minnesota Stroke Institute found that cat owners had a 30 percent reduction in heart attack risks compared with participants who didn’t own cats or other pets. Whatever type of pet you choose to have, feeding, ensuring medical care, exercise and providing stimulation and affection for your pet all help create a deep bond of trust and affection. This is especially evident when the bond is with an animal which expresses itself. A dog wagging its tail in delight of playtime, a cat purring when near you, or a bird hopping up and down and squawking approval at dinnertime all provide positive reinforcement and the feeling of a true companionship. Some people find that caring for reptiles, fish and other seemingly “non-expressive” creatures also provides a sense of satisfaction, albeit without the overt expression of thanks from the pet. Regardless of the type of animal in question, there is something fundamentally special about being responsible for the health and quality of life of another creature that can be a reward beyond measure.
Simply put, our pets are our friends. Like their human counterparts they are often demanding, sometimes aloof and possess their own unique needs, quirks and personalities. Yet they are also capable of putting a smile on our faces, provide us with ongoing companionship, and like the best of friends, give us unconditional love and support.