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Pets: Much More Than Furry Friends

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For many people the topic of the health benefits of pets conjures up images of assistance dogs for the sight or hearing impaired. However, there is also much anecdotal and scientific evidence that supports the theory that all people can benefit from having close contact with pets..

For many people the topic of the health benefits of pets conjures up images of assistance dogs for the sight or hearing impaired. However, there is also much anecdotal and scientific evidence that supports the theory that all people can benefit from having close contact with pets.

Surveys indicate that more than 50 percent of Canadian households have pets of some kind, and most people consider them to be members of the family, not belongings that can be discarded. The majority of people report that their pets are extremely important to them when they are sad, lonely, or depressed, and 90 percent of people believe that their pets are aware of their moods.

James Lynch, PhD, has researched the effects of loneliness on the development of human physical and mental illnesses, including depression, anxiety, and overall shortened lifespan. In one study on the long-term survival of heart patients-a group that is prone to suffering from depression and a sense of isolation-he discovered that four times as many patients without pets died within one year of their heart attack than those with pets. Another study revealed that just having people gaze at fish swimming in a tank was more effective in lowering their blood pressure than a variety of meditation techniques.

From a mounting body of research into the human-animal bond, Dr. Lynch concluded that pets play a large role in helping people achieve a sense of heightened relaxation, resulting in fewer tendencies to isolate themselves from others physically and/or emotionally. The necessity of positive contact with animals in helping people to live longer and more rewarding lives is necessary, according to Dr. Lynch, to "help end the ever-rising tide of human loneliness and social disconnectedness, which is the great plague of the new millennium."

Seniors form a societal group that is especially susceptible to loneliness. As people age, changes in their mobility and the loss of family members contribute to isolation and depression. In one study of friendship bonds between elderly people and their dogs, 78 percent of male and 67 percent of female participants indicated that their pets were their only friends, and that the emotional ties they had with their animal companions were as strong as any they had experienced with humans. The seniors' needs for attachment and nurturance were fulfilled in their relationships with their pets.

There is a growing lobby for seniors' care homes and hospitals to allow pets into their facilities to act as catalysts for social interaction among residents and to improve their overall quality of life. The now well-documented Eden Alternative demonstrated that creating home-like surroundings in seniors' homes-including companion animals-resulted in a dramatic decline in the use of mind- and mood-altering drugs by residents and fewer deaths. Observers noted that the residents' commitment to care for the animals regenerated their desire to live.

Craig Naherniak, general manager of Humane Education at the BC SPCA, believes that positive contact with animals is also essential for children. Pets, being non-judgmental companions, help children develop higher self-esteem. In turn, young people with high self-esteem are less likely to display abusive behaviours towards other people and animals.

"Contact with pets allows for the development of empathy and nurturing skills- especially in young males. Very often young people will display emotions with animals that they won't with others," Naherniak says.

In family research where respondents discussed the importance of their pets, 52 percent said their pets were of great importance during family crises such as illness, death, or divorce. Other studies of pets and family dynamics reported that pets reduce stress and increase family adaptability. Attachments to their pets have even made some victims of natural disasters, such as hurricanes or floods, refuse rescue if their pets could not be saved with them.

"Society does not yet recognize the validity and strength of the relationship (of people with their pets) and the value of pets in keeping stability in the family," says Naherniak.

Eighty percent of Canadian pet owners give their pets holiday and birthday presents, 60 percent sign their pets' names on cards and letters, and 94 percent speak to their pets as though they were human. These people can look forward to a life with reduced stress and lower blood pressure with a creature who loves them unconditionally, no matter how crabby they are or how much they sing off-key in the shower. Friends and acquaintances may look askance as people talk to their pets on the phone, or leave them messages on the answering machine-one-third of pet owners do this-but the looks can be ignored. Because of their animal companions, pet owners will live longer, happier, and healthier lives.

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