THERE'S A prescription-free treatment that improves your health and makes you feel better in mind and spirit. It comes in many varieties, including furry, feathery, and scaly.
Research shows that pets and other animals can reduce blood pressure, cholesterol levels, triglyceride levels, loneliness and stress, and increase self-esteem. Even gazing at fish in a tank is soothing and can lower blood pressure. Think about the last time an animal made you smile.
The National Institutes of Health reports that the pet population is growing by leaps and bounds. Pets are now in in about two-thirds of U.S. households, more than 160 million cats and dogs.
The relationship between humans and animals isn’t new. A 12,000-year-old human skeleton was unearthed in a Middle Eastern desert with its hand nestling the head of a young wolf, the ancestor of today’s dogs.
Many people can’t be around animals due to allergies, or because pets just aren’t their thing – but even if pets aren’t part of your lifestyle, they can play a role in your well-being. For example, stuffed animals are comforting to kids, as well as their attachment to animal cartoon and storybook characters. You can enjoy videos and stories about pets, and people of all ages laugh at internet messages that show animals being silly, endearing, or just plain cute.
Dog Days in Savannah. Imagine a young child curled up against a large brown dog, reading aloud—to the dog. That scene plays out at four of the Live Oak Libraries where children over the age of 5 can practice their reading skills with the most accepting audience imaginable—a certified therapy dog.
Library director Christian Kruse says “We see children on Dog Days who are reluctant to read for parents or teachers. Some of them can’t sit still very long. The dogs have a calming influence, and that helps the child relax, too. Important to the children, too, is that the dogs don’t comment on the child’s reading—they simply listen and love.”
Touch and acceptance. Stroking a pet is therapeutic. The slow, repetitive touch is meditative, soothing, and healing, especially when the animal becomes quiet and responds gently, such as a cat purring. When you need comfort, a pet doesn’t need the full story—it returns love unconditionally. It just knows you’re upset and relates to you unconditionally. Human relationships are complex, but your relationship with a pet is purer and simpler. It’s the same for that beloved stuffed animal.
Pets get you outdoors. Walking a dog provides exercise for both you and your pet and extends your social connections when you stop and chat with other dog walkers. A friendly dog may generate an introduction to a neighbor you’ve never met!
Animals can help you amp up your exercise program. In addition to regular walks, some pets and their people become exercise partners in activities, such as agility courses. Whether you’re running alongside your dog or working with a horse, you and the animal learn together. The payoff is mental alertness and physical exertion for both of you.
Laughter is good medicine. Pets have their own view of the world, and their antics are often the source of a good belly laugh. Cats hide in paper bags, dogs chase their tails, and some birds can learn to talk. When you come in the door after a long, tiring day at work, having a cat rub against your leg with its “I missed you!” greeting is a guaranteed mood lifter.
Healthy practices for pet owners. The responsibility for a pet’s health rests with its owner. Cleanliness, adequate water, nutritious food, and safe shelter can cost time and money, but they’re a comparatively reasonable price to pay for unconditional love, loyalty, and companionship. Extend good pet practices by washing your hands before and after pet contact, keeping your animal’s vaccinations up to date, and monitoring children under age 5 when they’re with your pet.
Animals help us to take away the stress of the everyday away—work, study, preparing meals, household chores and the like. Take the time to gaze into an animal’s eyes and you’ll feel the joy that comes with good health and happiness.
Abby Evans is Operations Coordinator for Canyon Ranch Institute and has first-hand experience with the therapeutic power of pets. Jan McIntire is CRI's Senior Advisor for Outreach, and is in love with her Soft Coated Wheaton Terrier.