The Positive Power of Pets

Caring for an animal is a lot of responsibility. Is it worth it? Research into the perks of pets shows hanging out with furry friends can enhance our lives in many ways. The positive power of pets.

One of the most common family members, there’s a pet in almost 70 per cent of households. According to the 2022 Pets in
Australia: A National Survey of Pets and People report, dogs are our most popular choice. Forty-eight per cent of us have one
pooch or more, followed by cats (which are occupants in a third of our households). Fish and birds are quite popular too and,
to a lesser extent, small mammals such as rabbits, guinea pigs, mice and ferrets, reptiles and farm animals.

There are more pets in Australia than people, reveals the report, which is by AMA (Animal Medicines Australia) and SEC Newgate Research. In fact, we’re more likely to have a pet than our own human offspring! Making it an almost universal
experience, it’s estimated 93 per cent of all Australians have had a pet at some point in their lives.

Living with a domestic canine, feline or other species is generally touted as positive and great for our wellbeing.

So, what are the perks? And what’s the evidence for such claims? How much is sugar-coated fluff? Providing for a pet
is sometimes described as a one-way relationship. But is it? Let’s explore.

Cuddly and calming cuties

Most of us have heard that hanging out with pets can reduce stress and improve our mood. What’s the proof? Among the evidence is a Swedish study by Linda Handlin and her colleagues. It found oxytocin (the hormone associated with euphoric, loving feelings) rose while cortisol (the stress hormone), blood pressure and insulin levels decreased in people after stroking, petting and talking with their dog. Do cats have the same effect?

In a more recent study, college students at Washington State University reduced their salivary cortisol levels by patting, playing
or interacting with either dogs or cats for 10 minutes. So, how does this work? One of the ways pets might reduce stress is through distracting us from our worries and grounding us in the moment — a furry type of mindfulness. Plus, physical touch stimulates oxytocin and other feel-good hormones. Think of Fido and Fluff as a love bomb.

Brainy benefits

The stress-busting and other health pros of pets has led psychologists and neuroscientists to wonder: could they be good for our brain health too? As part of research into the ageing of the brain and nervous system across the lifespan, researchers in the US and Canada compared the brains of 56 adult pet-owners with 39 adults without a pet. They found the pet owners tended to have higher cognitive function and larger brain structures — in other words, better brain health. This was most pronounced for dog owners and older adults with several pets (as opposed to just one). According to research published in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience in 2022, having a pet could potentially reduce our brain age by up to 15 years. It’s hypothesised that interacting with and caring for animals gives our brain a bit of a workout. Another tick for pets and their benefits.

Talk to the animals

It’s also claimed that having a pet or two about the house reduces loneliness. We especially value animal friends for their loyalty and that they don’t judge or criticise us. They’re reliable companions to come home to, especially for the sick and those who live alone. Children adore and enjoy them. And to our joy, many of our pets, especially felines, dogs and birds, can and do communicate with us.

Research published in Scientific Reports, shows that dogs, for instance, use facial expressions, such as brow raising and eye widening. Far from anti-social, cats — who are masters of subtlety — were found to use 276 distinctly different facial expressions to communicate in an observation of 53 domestic cats at a non-profit CatCafe Lounge in California, USA. The study, published in Behavioural Processes in 2023, was widely reported in the media as evidence of the sociable nature of modern, domesticated moggies.

Given that, it’s not so nutty that 50 per cent of pet owners confessed to talking to their pets on a regular basis in the AMA’s Pets in Australia report. Twenty-three per cent of owners took their pets on regular holidays and 31 per cent referred to themselves as their pet’s parent — which isn’t as strange as it sounds. Psychologists believe the relationship we have with our pets is most similar to that between parents and children. So, do pets offer any social support in return?

Pandemic pets

Amid the social isolation and high anxiety of the pandemic (as that time’s been labelled), many of us turned to our animal friends for solace and company. In Australia, pet ownership jumped about eight per cent during COVID, according to statistics reported by AMA. According to AMA’s report, “companionship” was the most frequent reason cited for getting a pet dog, cat or bird. Fish and small mammals were more likely to be acquired for “relaxation”. Overall, having a pet was a positive experience for 85 per cent of the pet owners surveyed.

A 2022 review of 24 articles on pets and loneliness by the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf in Germany University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf had mixed results. But, overall, it found having a pet was associated with less social isolation, especially around the time of the pandemic.

Animal empaths

The pandemic pet boom was also investigated and reported by Latrobe University in Melbourne. They found adults with a strong emotional bond to their pet more likely to experience psychological distress. Similarly, children with a high attachment to their pet tended to feel more anxiety. The researchers were quick to point out this less-favourable effect was unlikely to be the pet’s fault. More likely, it was a reflection of existing personal and social factors — including mental health vulnerabilities, lack of social support and personality traits like high empathy.

Weighing into this, empaths (people who are deeply sensitive to their environment and the feelings and sufferings of others) have been found to be more vulnerable to depression and anxiety. Interestingly, scientists at The Roslin Institute and Scotland’s Rural College recently discovered a specific version of the oxytocin gene in those with the highest compassion for animals, which suggests empathy for animals (or the lack of it) is something we’re born with.

The take home: if you’re an empath with a pet, you need to take good care of yourself. Having a pet is a carer role and can sometimes tax us. While pets have benefits in our lives, they’re only one part of the picture. We need humans too. And pets are no substitute for good mental health practices.

Walk with the animals

The key to being a healthy pet owner is to minimise the downsides and maximise the benefits of living with animal kin, such as physical activity.

Every day, regardless of the weather, my neighbour takes her dog Razzie for a walk around the block. She’s in her 70s and, like the ageing cattle dog, is less agile these days. In fact, there are times when walking the arthritic, old dog feels like a major struggle. But the daily walks keep both dog and owner active and healthy. Like all relationships, it’s complex. Ultimately, having responsibility and purpose to activate us into positive actions serves our health and wellbeing.

Reflecting the “Razzie effect”, a review of the literature on the health benefits of pets (published in 2023 by researchers in Portugal) found dog owners had a much higher frequency of physical activity than people without pets. Not surprising to mums and dads of energetic young dogs! The review of 49 studies also found the level of increased physical activity to be related to the strength of the relationship between owner and pet. If you can’t motivate yourself to exercise, perhaps a dog pal might help.

Social lubricators

Related to the daily walk is the fact dogs, and to a lesser extent other animals, help us connect with other humans. One study (of about 2700 people across Perth and the US), found having a pet was the third most common reason for meeting the locals.
This was significantly more the case for people who walked their dogs. Those with a pet were 60 per cent more likely than those without one to befriend locals in their neighbourhood.

Pets offer a point of connection and are a great social ice breaker. And dogs, as we know, are highly social creatures with often no shyness when it comes to approaching another dog (and their owner).

Biophilic connection

Perhaps the best reasons for having animals in our lives are less measurable and more mysterious. In Our Wild Calling, author Richard Louv argues that humans need other species to feel whole and a sense of belonging on Earth. Biophilia is our innate love and need for nature and it’s documented by mounting research about how nature helps us thrive. As part of nature, animals connect us back to the world we evolved in. It’s significant that in all creation stories, creatures of all kinds feature strongly, Louv points out. Historically, humans in all cultures and civilisations have lived in symbiotic relationships with animals— including wild dogs, cats, horses, birds, donkeys and goats. Animals are part of our family and fellow comrades on our journey on the planet.

We should enjoy relationships with animals for our physical and emotional health but also our spiritual wellbeing. For animals teach us empathy and responsibility, making us better people.

Article Featured in WellBeing 209

Originally Appeared Here

You May Also Like

About the Author: Rayne Chancer