How Pets Improve Our Wellbeing

In the lawn with Golden Retriever puppies. (Image by Mukund Acharya)

Sukham Blog – A monthly column focused on South Asian health and wellbeing.

One evening three weeks ago, I stopped by the home of a friend whose Golden Retriever had given birth to nine beautiful puppies. As soon as I sat on the lawn where the puppies were mulling around, three of them clambered onto my lap and began to gnaw at my fingers, gazing up at me with looks of pure innocence. The troubles of my day melted away and I was instantly transported to a magical place. I remained on an emotional high for the rest of that evening.

Pets have become integral parts of families across the world. Today, dogs are by far the most loved, followed by cats, birds, and fish. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, over 76 million pet dogs are cared for in 48 million US households. The next largest dog ownership is in Brazil, China, Russia, Japan, the Philippines, and India. Pet dogs in India now number more than 10 million, growing at a faster rate than all other countries. 

Archeological evidence shows that dogs were the first animals domesticated by humans more than 30,000 years ago – 10,000 years before horses, cattle, and sheep. Experts theorize that wolves began scavenging food from human hunter-gatherers, who provided them food, shelter, and protection. In return, the wolves helped humans with their hunting.  These domesticated wolves bred over the millennia, evolving into the dogs we know today. Along the way, they became companions and pets, connecting with humans at a deeper level than other animals.

Lyn’s pet dog named Galice.

Ask any pet owner, and they will tell you about the joy pets bring into their lives.  Dogs are aware of and highly responsive to our emotions, body language, and behavior. They can interpret our tone of voice and gestures, and understand many of the words we use.  They can judge our emotional state and respond appropriately to our thoughts, feelings and words.

Research reported by the National Institute of HealthCleveland Clinic, HelpGuide and others helps us understand that pets do much more than provide joy, love, and companionship; they help improve our health and wellbeing. Pets reduce stress, anxiety, depression, and loneliness, and boost our vitality. Studies of people with and without pets have shown that pet owners are less likely to suffer from depression and have lower blood pressure in stressful situations.  Pets fulfill the basic human need for touch, and interacting with them elevates the levels of serotonin and dopamine, thereby calming and relaxing us.  They also benefit heart and brain health by targeting detrimental factors. “Simply petting an animal can decrease the level of the stress hormone cortisol and boost the release of the neurotransmitter serotonin, resulting in lowered blood pressure and heart rate and, possibly, an elevated mood,” says Dr. Marwan Sabbagh, Director of Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Brain Health. Adults over 65 with pets make 30% fewer visits to their doctors; pet owners have lower triglyceride and cholesterol levels, and heart-attack patients with pets have longer survival rates.  Pets help their owners make connections with others, thereby reducing social isolation, as strangers frequently strike up conversations with the owners.  The need to exercise dogs helps their owners adopt a heart- and brain-healthy lifestyle. Regular exercise promotes improved weight control, cardio-respiratory fitness, and muscular strength, and reduced risk of chronic diseases and killers such as heart disease, stroke, cancer, and diabetes. Pets could even help individuals who are at risk for developing dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, according to neuropsychologists at the Cleveland Clinic.  The need to care for a pet adds routine and structure to the day providing both physical and mental benefits.  Pets help raise emotionally intelligent children and can be of special help to children with autism, learning disorders, or other challenges.  

Beyond making great pets, dogs are excellent service animals as well. They can be trained to help the blind and handicapped, detect narcotics and explosives, accompany law-enforcement officers on canine patrol and find trapped people in earthquake and disaster zones. In a recent clinical trial in the UK, dogs could rapidly, and non-invasively detect COVID-19 with up to 94.3% sensitivity.

Baby Golden Retriever

The health benefits of animal-assisted therapy in hospitals are scientifically proven. Trained dogs provide adult and children patients not only cuddles and companionship, but additional comfort, and specialized care that has a measurable impact on a patient’s healing and recovery, with improved blood pressure and cardiovascular health and increased endorphin release, while encouraging communication and movement, and decreasing feelings of isolation and depression. In 1997, Stanford Hospital instituted an animal-visitation program known as Pet Assisted Wellness at Stanford (PAWS) for patients and families. Carefully-selected, well-trained dogs and their handlers visit patients who would enjoy a friendly companion. Different PAWS teams are scheduled each week to visit patients at the bedside by referrals, while others do group visits with nurses as part of a “Cuddlers for Caregivers” program. “The benefits of a pet therapy program are truly remarkable,” says Katie Smith, manager of the PAWS program, “I have witnessed multiple instances of patients who light up, cry tears of joy, or even speak for the first time in days after a therapy dog enters the room. Pet therapy visits also provide nursing staff with some much-needed stress relief, and a few moments of joy, leading to a higher quality of patient care.”

Pets – dogs in particular – improve our health and wellbeing in many ways!

I’ve loved dogs since my father brought home a puppy as a gift for my ninth birthday. I know the joy that pets bring into our lives. I’ve learned more recently about all the health benefits as well. Even so, I’ve resisted getting a pet for the past few years, wanting to be sure I would still be up for the responsibility that comes with acquiring a pet. Having pets is much like having children; they need your time, they need to be loved, looked after, and nurtured. 

Something magical happened three weeks ago.  A small, tender puppy-hop onto my lap led to a gigantic life-changing, leap. Let me put it this way: it’s not that I finally made up my mind that evening to get a dog, but that little Maya decided she was going to adopt me as her new human! And I’m up for it!


Mukund Acharya is a regular columnist for India Currents. He is also President and a co-founder of Sukham, an all-volunteer non-profit organization in the Bay Area that advocates for healthy aging within the South Asian community. Sukham provides curated information and resources on health and well-being, aging, and life’s transitions, including serious illness, palliative and hospice care, death, and bereavement. Contact the author at [email protected]

With sincere thanks to Galice’s owner Lyn, for the use of his photograph.


 

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