My love affair with dogs began at a very young age. I talked about them non-stop, visited every neighbor who had one, and preferred the companionship of the babysitter’s dog to the babysitter herself. I truly believe the only reason my family got a dog when I was a kid was so that they could stop hearing me talk about it. Simply put, that dog was a gateway drug. There have been many more dogs over the years. One very special dog opened my eyes to the true magic of pet ownership. Her name was Shadow and she was an anxious, neglected Border Collie mix that I adopted to save her from euthanasia. I was a busy college student, getting ready for graduate school, when Shadow came into my life. With training and care, she blossomed into the kind of dog who didn’t need a leash and could spend hours under my desk while I studied. Looking back, I am certain that the only reason I survived graduate school is because of that dog. She knew how to make me laugh by stealing my highlighter pens, she reminded me to exercise every day, she loved adventures and would get my car keys when she wanted to go for a ride, and, when I was overwhelmed, she was there to comfort me and remind me of what was really important: her. How lucky I was to be a student of animal behavior, attending a university where there were professors and researchers interested in the health benefits of animals as well. Thus began my professional love affair with the science of animals as therapists.
Dating back to the 1700’s, English Quakers were using animals in asylums to soothe patients and teach them about responsibility. Sigmund Freud brought his own dog to the office with him as he quickly discovered that the dog’s presence alone caused patients to trust him and the therapeutic process. Studies conducted while I was a student proved that a test subject in a wheelchair with a dog by their side received more social engagement in the form of conversation, smiles, etc., than that same test subject in a wheelchair without the dog. And it’s a proven fact that animals visiting hospitals don’t just cheer patients up with their presence—they decrease the length of hospital stays, and reduce stress for the patients as well as their caregivers and the medical staff. Researchers at Loyola University found that people who took part in pet assisted therapy while recovering from surgery needed significantly less pain management in the form of medications than those who did not participate in the pet assisted therapy programs offered to them. The psychological benefits of animal assisted therapy aren’t limited to hospitals, nursing homes, etc. Pets benefit their owners as well.
Owning a pet reduces stress and anxiety, and curbs depression as pets ease our loneliness and feelings of isolation. Pets keep us on a schedule and love a routine. They encourage us to unplug and play. Dogs, in particular, encourage us to exercise and get some fresh air. Playing with your dog elevates serotonin and dopamine, two neurotransmitters linked to feelings of happiness, a sense of calm, and feelings of relaxation. Pet owners have improved immunity, lower blood pressure, decreased breathing rate, and a lower risk of heart attacks and stroke. And for people living with chronic pain, pets can decrease their anxiety and therefore decrease their pain. For veterans suffering from PTSD, the presence of a pet is calming, acting as a social lubricant, and aiding their reintroduction into society. Veterans with dogs describe themselves more positively and have lower suicide rates.
And the health benefits of pet ownership extend beyond dogs. Cat owners are 30% less likely to have a heart attack and 40% less likely to have a stroke. Cats and dogs are sensitive to changes in blood glucose levels and can thus be incredibly beneficial to owners with diabetes. One study even found that the purring of a cat near a person experiencing dyspnea, or difficulty breathing, led to the person’s breathing evening out and returning to normal. Children with pets miss fewer days of school, have fewer allergies, and are better at expressing themselves than their non-pet-owning classmates. Studies following kids with autism or ADHD whose families own pets have found that taking care of the family pets helps with structure and routine, allowing those children to focus on the responsibilities of pet ownership and the immediate benefits of companionship from an animal who does not judge.
For people suffering from overwhelming anxiety and depression, an emotional support animal can be a lifesaver. These animals provide comfort and support quite simply in the form of continuous affection and companionship. Unlike service dogs, whom perform specific tasks for the people they assist, emotional support animals provide relief just by their presence alone. And emotional support animals don’t have to be canine; I have seen cats, birds, a pot-belly pig and a miniature horse providing emotional support to their owners with debilitating anxiety and depression.
So while I am not suggesting that everyone living with anxiety and depression run out and get a pet, I am suggesting that pet ownership can work in conjunction with more traditional forms of therapy to achieve significant mental and physical payoffs. For those sufferers who cannot afford a pet or live somewhere that pets are not allowed, volunteering with a pet assisted therapy organization or at a local shelter can confer many of the same health benefits.
My friends and family have often (jokingly I hope!) referred to me as a “collie pusher.” In addition to my border collie mix, I have had the pleasure of sharing my life with four other collies. I love this breed. They are big, fluffy, affectionate but not effusive, gentle, even-tempered, loyal, smart, companionable dogs. I know good and well that there are many other breeds who can be described the same way. The bottom line is this: sharing my home with these dogs has resulted in health benefits for myself and for my children. I have raised empathetic, socially conscious, compassionate kids. I don’t take all the credit. I let the collies take credit as well. And at the end of the day, as my spinning mind begins to unwind, I do so with a hand on each of my dogs as they work their magic on my psychological well-being. I wouldn’t have it any other way.