Life
Xenia Taliotis 5 Jun 2018 04:27pm

The power of pet therapy

Rescuing an animal from a shelter might just result in them rescuing you right back. Xenia Taliotis discovers all the ways in which sharing our homes with pets can improve – and even save – our lives

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Caption: Illustrations by Serge Seidlitz
Want to lose weight? Get a dog. Feeling lonely? Get a pet. Having heart problems? Get a cat. Keen to meet new people? Get a dog. Suffering from depression? Get a pet. My cure for all manner of life’s maladies is “get a pet” – though obviously only if you are able to look after and love it at least as well as it is going to look after and love you.

I’ll confess I’m an animal lover who believes pets rescue humans and not the other way round. It’s hard not to smile when a cat has a funny five minutes and goes flying across the room, or pounces on a favourite toy. And smiling and having something to care for are two of the first steps to recovery if you’re feeling down. My cat Nora is good for my heart – literally as well as metaphorically– according to a 2008 study by the University of Minnesota. The research looked at 4,435 adults who were or had been cat or dog owners and concluded that the feline fanciers had a significantly lower relative risk of heart disease than those who’d never had a cat or who had had dogs, after factors such as age, smoking and diabetes were taken into account. Two possible reasons for this, said the researchers, are that cats are natural stress-busters, or that cat lovers “have traits that are protective towards cardiovascular disease”, independent of the animal.

Either way, I win. Heart health aside, my cat has introduced me to my neighbours. When she arrived (some 20 years after I moved into my flat), a difficult downstairs neighbour wouldn’t give her access to the garden so we’d go for a walk up and down the road. She wasn’t on a lead, but walked to heel (and to heal); the sight of her trotting by my side was a great conversation starter that has led to a wonderful new friendship and other warm acquaintances. Animals are friend-magnets and great social lubricants, oiling the cogs of human interaction. Numerous studies have shown that people who have pets are significantly more likely to know other residents in their neighbourhood than those who don’t.

The same could be said for people who get the same bus or train each day, of course, but whom would you rather speak to: the person who’s admiring your dog, or the one who’s moaning about delayed transport? A 2017 study of pet owners in four cities – Nashville, San Diego and Portland in the US, and Perth, Australia – showed that pet owners had higher social capital; defined by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) as “networks together with shared norms, values and understandings that facilitate co-operation within or among groups”. What this means is that your animals – rodents, fish, birds,as well as felines and canines – are not only good for you, but also good for society, because building social capital strengthens the fabric of local communities, which leads to safer neighbourhoods and stronger support networks between people. I’m oversimplifying, but the basic tenet holds.

On an individual level, the benefits pets bring to mental and physical health are so extensive that they far outweigh any negatives (you will spend money; you will clean up a lot of poo; if you end up with a cat like Nora, you will need a new sofa; and you will likely be bereft when they die). Studies carried out by the University of California and Los Angeles (UCLA) – which has been running its Animal-Assisted Therapy and Activity programme, taking dogs to visit patients in hospital, since 1994 – reveal multiple positive affects of animals on human health.

Even the simple act of stroking animals creates an automatic relaxation response that floods the body with mood-lifting hormones such as serotonin, prolactin and oxytocin, lowering anxiety and stress. At the other end of the scale are the “medics”: dogs that warn diabetics when their blood sugar is plummeting and epileptics that they are likely to have a seizure; rats that detect TB; horses that quieten children with autism; and dogs and pigeons that can sniff out cancer. In supporting mental health, pets can provide routine (or a break from it), increase mental stimulation, give solace, and even help people with Alzheimer’s or brain injury recall events and place them in sequence.

Your pet can also lower your blood pressure. In a 2013 study of 1,570 people aged over 60 for Oregon State University, owning a dog was associated with a 3.34mmHg decrease in systolic blood pressure. What this means,says Dr Ragavendra Baliga, a cardiologist and professor of internal medicine at Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center, is that you are less likely to have a
stroke: “Even a 2mmHg reduction in systolic blood pressure is associated with a 6% reduction in stroke, a 4% reduction in coronary heart disease and a 3% reduction in overall mortality.”

In the interests of balance, it should be noted that Dr John Bradshaw, one of the world’s leading experts in anthrozoology – the science of human-animal interactions – wrote recently that science has yet to pin down the precise role that animals play in the remedies we give them credit for, that much of the evidence is patchy and that humans have run away with the “idea that animals might be magical”.

Nonetheless, the results of pet therapy in hospitals, prisons and psychiatric wings, though largely anecdotal, are compelling. Dr Elizabeth Ormerod, co-founder of Canine Partners, the UK assistance dogs programme, has been studying animal-human interaction for decades and has been instrumental in introducing animal-assisted intervention (AAI) to schools, nursing homes, hospitals, psychiatric facilities and prisons. A board member of the Society for Companion Animal Studies (SCAS), the world’s first international interdisciplinary human-animal bond (HAB) organisation, and a trainer on its AAI courses, she is in no doubt of animals’ contribution to human wellbeing.

“In my opinion, people cannot reach their full potential if they do not share their life with an animal, and the sooner the interaction starts the better,” says Ormerod. “There seems to be some correlation between early development of emotional intelligence and being brought up in a house with animals, with even very young pet owners displaying essential life skills such as responsibility, empathy and the ability to interpret non-verbal clues. And studies are also pointing to animal ownership benefiting the immune system, with kids who live with pets having lower rates of absenteeism.” Ormerod has seen first hand the tangible difference animals make to the lives of chronically ill people, to the homeless and to prisoners.

“When we introduced caged birds to prisons, we saw a reduction in aggression, violence and anxiety,” she says. “Men who had killed, or who had a drug dependency or who had been involved in armed bank robberies became more social with each other and with their prison guards. We had cases where men who’d been on report the whole time they’d been in prison stopped getting into trouble after they had the birds to look after, and I’ll never forget the man who learned to read so he could better care for a canary, nor the 60-year-old inmate who told me he’d never experienced love before getting a budgerigar.”

She also says that one of the best things parents of autistic children can do is to get a pet. “Those who are on the spectrum often relate better to their furry companions than to humans,” an observation borne out by studies at UCLH, which showed autistic children were more talkative and interactive during their therapy sessions when animals were present. Ultimately it doesn’t matter whether the animal is the cause of better health (a dog makes you walk, a cat makes you feel less stressed), or the consequence (you like walking so you get a dog, you’re laidback so you adopt a cat), the effects are the same. People with animals are happier and healthier – if not wealthier – than those without.

FINDING YOUR PERFECT PETMATE

Animal ownership is a serious consideration and not one that should be rushed into. Think about your circumstances and lifestyle. Consider the animals waiting in shelters, including quite probably your favourite breed, before splashing out on a pedigree. The PDSA PETS test (pdsa.org. uk), pinpointing the four essential considerations – place, exercise, time and spend – will help you focus on an animal’s needs.

Likewise, Blue Cross (bluecross.org.uk), Battersea (battersea.org.uk), and most other animal charities have tailor-made re-homing schemes that will take you through a detailed questionnaire to help find the best pet for you. If you’re approaching retirement and are dreaming of getting a malamute, the breed you had when you were in your 20s, perhaps reconsider. Are you still capable of running for hours to exercise it? Could you lift it if it was injured? Can you heft its sacks of food? On the flip side, if you hike for miles every weekend, get a dog with stamina (or that will fit in a carry pack). If you really want a pedigree pet, do your research on breed, breeder, and lineage.

Check that the animal has been registered with a vet. Ask for testimonials from other people who’ve taken animals from the breeder. If you can, meet the parents. It may be that your lifestyle is still not compatible with pet ownership, in which case you can still reap the benefits of “borrowing” a pet. The Cinnamon Trust (cinnamon.org.uk) will put you in touch with elderly or unwell dog-owners who are no longer able to walk their pet so that you can do it for them. Or you could volunteer your time to Battersea or to the Greyhound Trust (greyhoundtrust.org.uk).
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