I should start out by acknowledging I’m the last person on earth who should be writing this post. While I certainly have compassion for animals, I have never been an actual “animal person”. Litsa’s the animal person, I’m the kid person; it’s usually best if we stick to our roles.
Before you go thinking I’m an awful person, I’m not. My attitude on animals is clearly the product of childhood trauma. You see my parents refused to get me and my many brothers and sisters a dog and instead appeased us with a string of small pets like outdoor cats, mice, rats, fish, frogs, gerbils, turtles, and iguanas. You will note that many of these pets are of the slimy, scaly or rodent variety and they almost always wound up dead or on the lam.
For most of my parental life I've managed to maintain a pet-free household. My perception of the hassle - escape attempts, vets, mess, chewing, and fur - far outweighed any potential benefits I could see. I've always found comfort in being able to walk past the pet aisle at the grocery store without having to load an 8 pound bag of dog food onto my already too full shopping cart.
I was firm in my conviction until Christmastime when my daughters launched operation: Get Puppy. They asked so often yet so sweetly that I had to consider. Every dog owner I spoke to said, “They need a puppy! They make your life better!” and somewhere in the back of my mind I saw my 7 year old self staring unenthusiastically at my tiny pet frog swimming back and forth through murky aquarium water.
You can probably guess what happened next. Everyone, meet Pepper.
Through my interaction with Pepper I have come to believe that puppies are the product of sorcery (the good kind). How else can you explain the spell this dog has cast on everyone in the house? She is an undeniable pain 65% of the time and yet she’s the most beloved object of everyone’s affection. I wish I could boast similar statistics.
She makes us laugh when we’re grouchy, she soothes the kids when they’re sad, and even when she’s done something really agitating I find myself cuddling her and calling her "baby". I used to be unmoved by even the cutest puppy calendar, I don't understand what’s happening to me?!? Naturally I turned to the Internet to investigate.
Most of you probably already knew this, but it turns out that pets are kind of good for our emotional and physical wellbeing; you might even say they help us cope during times of hardship and struggle. Truthfully I'm not new to this idea, I've heard many people count petting, playing, or being around animals as a coping skill. Although I knew the research supported this thought, I never quite got it until now.
Humans love animals in ways that are similar to how they love their children. From an evolutionary standpoint this may prove puzzling to some. Why would humans dedicate resources like time, money, love, and protection to a member of another species unless they received something in return? Obviously pet ownership does nothing to continue our own species, but perhaps this relationship is made mutualistic by more subtle benefits. Let's take a few moments to look at all the reasons why a person might benefit from owning, loving, or spending time with an animal.
The Healing Power of Animals
One word: hormones. Research has shown that people who interact with animals may experience increased levels of oxytocin (otherwise known as the "trust hormone", "love hormone", or "bonding hormone"). In fact one study found that the simple act of making eye contact with their dogs when they got home from work increased oxytocin in a sample of women. On an emotional level oxcytocin helps mothers bond with their newborn babies, human couples establish a a greater sense of intimacy and it has been linked to increased feelings of self esteem, optimism and trust.
In addition to oxytocin there is some evidence to suggest that interaction with a friendly animal can decease levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, and raise levels of the feel-good brain chemical dopamine. Taking these benefits into account, it's no wonder that we're now finding animals involved with a number of therapeutic interventions. You may have even heard of programs that bring animals directly into hospitals to help cheer up, calm and distract patients.
Pet ownership has been linked to physical benefits such as reduced risk for heart disease, lower stress levels, fewer doctors visits, lower cholesterol, and lower blood pressure.
Again we can refer back to hormones and chemicals like oxytocin, cortisol and dopamine. Oxytocin has been found to relive pains like headaches, cramps and overall body aches. Lower levels of cortisol can account for lower stress levels and contributes to some of those heart and blood pressure related benefits.
In 2013 Leslie Irvine, a Sociologist at the University of Colorado interviewed "pet guardians" experiencing homelessness in Boulder Colorado. She found that many of those she interviewed credited their animal with changing or saving their life. One woman stated her dog helped her quit heroin, leave an abusive relationship, and improve her HIV status. Another man said his dog has helped him combat isolation and depression by making him get out, walk and socialize with other people. Others interviewed believed their animals had saved them from attempting suicide, protected them from danger, and kept them healthy and happy.
I think it makes logical sense that pet ownership would reduce feelings of loneliness and isolation. Pets fulfill emotional needs like the need for love, security, companionship, and comfort. Taking care of a pet also fulfills the need to nurture and take care of a other living thing and can give people a sense of purpose.
I'm sure all you pet owners and animal lovers are thinking, "Tell me something I don't know." Whether you were aware of the healing power of animals or you just realized they made you feel good, I now encourage you to include your pet in your list of strengths when it comes to coping and healing from grief.
For all you animal skeptics, I get you. I know your thinking, "animal healing is not for me," and there's a good chance you're right. I'm not suggesting you run out and adopt a pet tomorrow, I'm simply asking you to open your mind to the possibilities because you never know when the opportunity to pet a puppy might present itself.
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