Friends of The Ralph Site know all too well the huge impact that pets have on our lives – the many positive memories and emotions they create, as well as the deep sense of loss felt when they have left us. We have each experienced the love and joy that enter our lives along with our pets, but did you know that there are other more tangible benefits gifted to us by these amazing furred, feathered and scaled companions?
Being around animals makes us feel better
Medical professionals have long known that interacting with animals has health benefits – William Tuke, an 18th century Quaker philanthropist, noticed that his asylum patients’ mental health benefitted from being around animals and so he ensured that copious numbers of rabbits and birds lived amongst the patients to encourage inmates to develop ‘benevolent feelings’, greater responsibility and self-control. Similarly, Florence Nightingale, in her ‘Notes on Nursing’ also saw how patients confined to bed gained a simple, but meaningful, pleasure from the presence of a bird in their room.
There is now a considerable body of research demonstrating a link between living with pets and improved health; whether it be living longer after a heart attack (Friedmann et al, 1980), reduced frequency of minor ailments (Serpell, 1991) or lower blood pressure in stressful situations (Allen et al, 2002).
Somebody to lean on
Aside from the real physical benefits that come from living with a pet, many studies have also shown a clear link with significantly lower levels of loneliness and feelings of isolation in people who share their home only with a pet (Headey, 1998). Psychologists have postulated that our pets’ greeting rituals, naturally affectionate dispositions, loyalty and ability to love unconditionally may all evoke feelings of self-worth and self-esteem in their human carers.
Companion animals create strong bonds
Research published in 2014 by scientists at the Claremont Graduate University in California found that domesticated animals release oxytocin when they are in close contact with their humans – the same hormone that creates close bonds between people. The study also showed that humans experience a surge in oxytocin (the ‘cuddle hormone’) when spending time with their dog or cat, and proved what we all know – that not everyone is a pet person!
In the study, 100 participants played with a dog or cat for 15 minutes, after which their levels of oxytocin were measured and compared with data taken before the start of the experiment. Only 30% saw increased levels of oxytocin after interacting with the animals, with those who had lived with dogs in the past being more likely to feel a bond while playing with the animals than those who had lived with cats, or those who had never lived with pets at all.
Given the strength of this connection between human and animal, it’s easy to see how the regular visits of therapy animals make a real difference to both the mental and physical health of those in hospital, schools or residential care homes. The wonderful organisation Pets as Therapy is a national charity, founded in 1983 and working with a network of volunteers across the UK to bring companion animals into the lives of thousands of adults and children every year. Their therapeutic visits offer support in three key areas:
- Providing companionship and friendship to help to tackle loneliness
- Improving the lives of people suffering from debilitating mental and physical health conditions and illnesses such as Autism, Dementia and Stroke as part of a holistic approach to treatment
- Improving literacy in children by developing their confidence, interest and enjoyment in reading, through the charity’s read2dogs scheme.
You can read more about Pets as Therapy’s important work, as well as finding out how to offer the services of yourself and your dog (or cat!) here.
Another similar, newer and more local service working with the elderly is TheraPaws offered by The Mayhew Animal Home in London.
Until next time, very best wishes from Shailen and The Ralph Site team
The Ralph Site, non-profit pet loss support