Why we need our pets during tough times

By Sally Foote 
Many of us who have owned a companion animal can attest to the positive impact they have on our lives.  As a veterinarian, I have witnessed the way a pet can provide a sense of purpose, comfort. and calm an anxious soul.   Often it is just the touch of fur, the happy (if not demanding) greeting, and the nonjudgmental affection that fills our heart.   

Psychologists and neuroscientists have studied the effects of companion animals on the mental status of humans.  The findings build evidence for the importance of supporting pet ownership and therapy programs.  Physicians are now acknowledging the benefits of pet ownership or therapy pet visits to the mental and physical health of their human patients. 

Some of the first documented studies on pet ownership, focused on the cardiovascular benefits to humans.  There are numerous articles to be found on the American Heart Association website (ahajournal.org) with evidence for reduced blood pressure, reduced early death after heart attack or stroke.  Some of the health benefits from exercise are seen with dog owners, as a daily walk provides needed activity in a routine way.  This daily routine is important for physical and mental health. 

Petting a companion animal creates many benefits. Oxytocin, an important hormone for bonding and “Feeling good” is increased when an animal is touched.  Blood pressure decreases as an animal is touched.   Reduction of human aggression, and depression have been documented with pet therapy and pet ownership. The act of petting and the measured benefits in mood, blood pressure, and stress hormone levels are well documented in many human medical studies.  A recent survey of prisoners who participate in a shelter dog basic obedience training program, have seen a reduction of inmate aggression, and reduced re incarceration.  

Caring for a pet often creates routines, social outlets, and a sense of purpose.  Routines keep control and structure in our lives. This structure can help people with early dementia, anxiety, and depression cope day to day.   If one is withdrawing from people, a pet can be a way to meet others with less intense human to human communication.    Often the pet brings a sense of connection to the local community which might otherwise not be present. 

As a practicing veterinarian for over 35 years, I have known firsthand the benefits of pet ownership. I have personally witnessed the benefit of a pet to a person who was severely ill from heart disease.  Several of my clients have shared personal stories of how the daily routine, companionship and bond with an animal lifted them out of a dark depression.  The stay at home COVID – social distancing orders is starving many of us from touch and companionship.  The act of petting a dog or cat can be literally lifesaving, especially now.  I hope everyone can support each other at this time, and the animals who bring our lives together when we must stay apart.

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