They say a dog is man’s best friend, but pets provide more than just companionship. Lyn Beasy* tells us about the physical, psychological and emotional benefits of having pets.
As a baby, Dale Gardner didn’t show typical behaviours. Diagnosed with autism and trapped in his own world, he was unable to communicate. When his parents decided to add a pet to the family, they did not know that the puppy would not only bring joy, but be the key to unlocking Dale’s inner world.
A Friend Like Henry is a true account of a severely autistic boy and how his dog, Henry, helped Dale function and gave him a better quality of life. Such is the bond of humans with pets. Domestic animals, whether they are dogs, cats, birds or even reptiles, can be an integral part of the family and the benefits are extensive.
Research shows that pet ownership builds a strong sense of responsibility and connectedness for both children and adults. Children with pets often also have higher self-esteem and are better at coping with grief and loss.
Having a furry or feathered best friend is also beneficial for the elderly. Pets are great companions for the isolated, particularly when loneliness is a common concern with the aging. Pets also act as an icebreaker when meeting people and can create new social opportunities for their owners.
No matter what your age, the physical benefits gained from owning a pet are extensive and include improved cardiovascular health and opportunities for increased activity.
Psychologically, pet owners also have a sense of empathy, responsibility and decreasing anxiety. Dogs are now regularly seen as important contributors in hospitals, nursing homes and schools, providing comfort and companionship, and are a key component in diversional and play therapy.
Not only do pets provide a sense of responsibility and care for their owners, they also care for their owners in return. In particular, dogs pick up on human emotions and can be a source of comfort during times of distress by helping people to regulate their emotions.
There is a growing area of animal-assisted therapy in treating more severe forms of psychological distress. Dogs and horses have been used in treating veterans and victims of post-traumatic stress disorder. Research findings suggest a significant reduction in PTSD symptoms when owning a pet.
Another study surveyed parents of children who had autism. Like the Gardner family discovered, most families that owned a dog said their child bonded strongly with the pet and it was a crucial factor in the child’s support.
Even if you don’t have the space to own a dog or cat, you can still benefit from having animals in your life. Consider volunteering at a local animal rescue centre, pet-sit or volunteer to walk a friend’s dog. Not only will you have fun with your new animal friend, your health will benefit too.
*Lyn Beasy is a Salvation Army psychologist.