Many people will tell you that owning and looking after a pet is one of the simplest and purest pleasures that a person can have in life, but there is increasing attention being focused on the actual, tangible health benefits of pet ownership.
The last few years have seen a number of stories emerging that are similar to Bruce Goldstein’s book ‘Puppy chow is better than Prozac: The true story of a man and the dog that saved his life’, which chronicles a man’s struggle with severe bipolar disorder and how he finds psychological redemption through caring for his black Labrador, Ozzy.
As the number of studies on the subject began to snowball, more and more of them claimed to be showing that owning a pet actively makes you a healthier person.
According to the studies, not only does owning a pet lower your risk of allergies, keep your blood pressure in check, contribute to a healthier heart and provide an early warning system for diabetics who experience a sudden drop in blood sugar, there are also a whole host of potential psychological benefits.
Less Stress and Anxiety
There are a number of different ways in which our pets can make us less stressed out and less anxious about our daily lives. Firstly, there is the fact that caring for a pet acts to distract us and stop us obsessing over the things that worry us in life. But there is a deeper psychological effect that being around our pets can have. Simply by stroking our pet, or even just watching some fish in a tank or your dog frolicking in the park, we initiate a chemical change in our brain whereby the level of Cortisol (a hormone associated with stress) is reduced and the amount of serotonin (associated with happiness and well-being) is increased.
A lengthy period of loneliness can have serious long term effects on the body that can lead to a quicker death including the hardening of the arteries, problems with retaining new information in their memory and increased inflammation within the body. This kind of loneliness is especially dangerous for elderly people.
Pets are a great way of finding a meaningful way of combating the loneliness in a number of key aspects. Firstly, they are often completely dependent (except for maybe those pesky kitties) upon you. Secondly, they are not judgemental about the way that people live, which is useful because many people fear being judged for their lifestyle choices. Thirdly, in conjunction with the stress-busting nature of pets, pets are great listeners and are very unlikely to tell anyone else your secrets. Studies have shown that there is evidence to suggest that pets can reduce loneliness in elderly people more than interaction with other humans!
Therapists have long acknowledged the benefits of pet ownership for people who are trying to crawl out from under the black cloud of depression. A particular exercise that is highlighted here is the practice of grooming your pet. This is something that is seen throughout the animal kingdom; grooming another animal is one of the most calming and meditative activities anyone can undergo, as well as acting to form a deep emotional and personal bond between the two participants.
Higher Self –Esteem
Another important psychological benefit from (certain kinds of) pet ownership is that it can really act to boost your self-esteem. Another recent study showed that owning a dog that does not take away from your social experiences (by being too aggressive, naughty or ill) can do wonders for its owner’s sense of self-esteem and sense of ‘meaningful existence.’ This probably has something to do with the owner seeing the dog as an extension of themselves and they therefore act to internalise the praise and adulation that their dog inevitably receives.
So while a pet is not a magic pill to increased psychological well-being, it can have significant benefits for both the pet and its owner. If you didn’t have a pet and you had a really bad day you, may be tempted to indulge in some self-destructive behaviour. If you have a pet at home that needs you, however, you are much more likely to take a deep breath, go and buy some dog or cat toys and go home and play.
Does anyone have any other examples of how pet ownership may (or may not) have beneficial psychological effects?
Gavin Harvey is a personal trainer with a secret passion for all things cute and fluffy. Here he writes for Petmeds.