The Power of Pets
Updated: Jun 7, 2020
No everyone is an animal lover, but there are plenty of reasons why you should be! Most people are aware of police dogs, guide dogs and other support roles for animals, but are you aware of the incredible emotive support that animals also provide?
Animal-assisted therapy has only existed since the 90’s, but the powerful support of animals has been noted long before then. In the 1850’s, Florence Nightingale noted the support that animals provided wounded soldiers in the Crimean War.
Horses, dogs, cats and even donkeys have played parts in World War history. Dogs and cats were used to hunt rats in trenches and camels, canaries and pigeons have all played their part too. Whether used for transport, protection or simply as mascots, animals have always played a big part in whatever war humans were waging. It seems that whatever part they had to play in war or peacetime, it was their emotional connection with their human carers that had the biggest impact.
In Rebecca Frankel’s book, War Dogs she explores the remarkable bond that develops between service dog and handler. One such pair was Marine Lance Corporal Joshua Ashley and “Sirius”. They were the number one team during training at Yuma military base, but tragically Josh was killed by an IED just two months after deploying to Afghanistan. “Sirius” at first refused to take commands from his new handler and showed significant signs of agitation at the loss of his partner. Such stories are all too common among canine and handler teams. (https://barkpost.com/life/10-things-about-military-dogs/)
Animal therapy uses primarily dogs to comfort patients in hospitals and nursing environments. Various studies have found pet therapy reduced pain and emotional distress among patients, decreased loneliness and anhedonia (the inability to feel pleasure) among residents of nursing care facilities, and even reduced anxiety scores in patients waiting for appointments. (https://www.stelizabeth.com/healthyheadlines/why-animal-therapy-works/)
Many pet owners have stories of their canine companion offering support during an emotionally tough time. Studies have shown that dogs are very apt at reading both our body language and our facial expressions; leading them to comfort us if they see we are upset.
Dogs’ noses are far superior to ours. They can detect particles in tiny concentrations which has lead to humans training them to sniff out things like narcotics and explosives. A lot of research is now taking place to find out whether dogs can also smell very small cancer particles within humans. (https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/323620)
It’s not just dogs that are improving our quality of life either. It seems that owners of all creatures great and small are waving the flag for the emotional support that their animals provide them.
After dogs, common animals used in pet therapy include; cats, rabbits, birds and even reptiles. Caring for animals with complex needs such as reptiles has been proven to alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety; this could be due to the persons shift in focus from their illness to the needs of the animal. Giving someone responsibility to care for another living creature gives us a sense of achievement and purpose that we may not have previously had. Animals have the ability to provide non-judgemental care and love towards us which at a time of crisis is just what we need.
Equine therapy has been proven to help people change negative behaviours. While it is a holistic approach and should be used alongside any necessary medicinal treatment and possibly other counselling, it is believed to have helped thousands of people overcome problems such as addiction.By working through equine therapy, you can develop skills such as communication, self-control, problem solving and accountability, as well as improving your self-esteem, empathy, flexibility and independence. (https://www.priorygroup.com/priory-treatment-programmes/therapy-types/equine-therapy)
It’s not just our mental health that animals help with either; a lot of research is underway measuring the impact that owning pets has on our cardiovascular health. Pet owners have lower blood pressure and a reduced risk of heart disease. Some argue that it is because of the daily exercise that having a pet like a dog ensures we get, while some say you’re more likely to be in better shape before having a pet and then getting the pet simply fits with your already active lifestyle. Either way, owning an animal that ensures you get regular exercise as well as the emotional support mentioned can only be a good thing! (https://www.cardiosmart.org/News-and-Events/2013/05/Pets-May-Boost-Heart-Health)
For most of us, animals have a calming effect and we feel less stressed and more in tune with our surroundings while engaging with them. It can be a very grounding experience to pet and care for animals.
There are also a lot of people who do not like animals. This can be for many reasons; it might be one specific animal such as dogs (Cynophobia), or it might be the smell or the mess they make or a more physical aspect of their presence like noise or size. Not everyone has to enjoy the company of animals, we’re all different.
However, if your dislike for animals spills over into fear or even a phobia, then you might want to try addressing it as a way of making your day to day life easier and less stressful. If you avoid going to certain people’s houses as they have animals, or specific public places where you’re worried animals may be, you should address this fear before it impacts your everyday life too extremely. The goal is not to make you into an animal-lover, simply to tone down the phobia so you can peacefully coexist with animals when you need to. Counselling is a good place to start with animal phobias. It’s helpful to look back at your past and find out if there was a defining moment in which the phobia arose. Once this event is recognised, it will be much easier to move forward.