I do love my dog, thank you Cat Stevens for that little ditty (see link above). If you aren’t an animal person, then this isn’t for you. But if you are, and I hope you are, then maybe you already understand the many benefits of having a pet. When I was growing up, we always had a few cats and dogs in the house. It helps you learn about responsibility and putting others needs in front of your own, but it also teaches you about unconditional love (at least with dogs, because cats always have conditions!).
In terms of healing and health and wellness, the pros about having a pet generally outweigh the cons. While there is the cost of keeping them, the happiness and joy they bring is priceless.
When I was going through my illness (and my mom’s, and major moves and other life upheavals), my cat Finn was both a comfort and a bright spot of guaranteed humor every day of his life. I’d had him since he fit in the palm of my hand and bottle fed him. Have you ever had a cat that would give you a high five? Mine did. He talked to you and whipped his tail around and never failed to make me feel better.
When I was sick and couldn’t move from my chemo treatments, he wouldn’t leave my side. Sadly, soon after I lost my mom, he went to join her in heaven. He lived as many of his nine lives as he could. It was a double blow, because your animals can’t tell you when they don’t feel well, and it is heartbreaking when you can’t help them. But I wouldn’t trade the experience of sharing his life for anything, and I know they are together there.
After my last surgery, my husband bought me our dog for an early Christmas present. She is the sweetest girl, and totally and completely hilarious. She makes us laugh every single day. She also makes me get up and outside, have a walk, some fresh air and sunshine. Those daily walks have helped tremendously on my journey back to my healthy self. At first, I could barely get around the block. Now we walk for miles every day. There is also that face that lights up every time I walk through the front door, or anywhere she is, the tail that starts wagging and jumping and kisses and happy doggy-ness (see her smiling?).
There are multiple studies over the last 25 years that show how pets can lower blood pressure, boost immunity, lessen anxiety and help with social isolation and depression. I have chatted with more of my neighbors and people walking by than ever before since having my dog. They are definitely a conversation starter! And did you know that playing with a dog can elevate dopamine and serotonin, those feel-good nerve transmitters? How about lowering cholesterol and triglycerides for heart attack patients? Yep, that too. Just touching an animal (or talking to your fish) relaxes us. Getting into a structured routine of feeding and playtime also helps sensory stress relief.
The University of California at Davis completed a study that showed Alzheimer patients experienced less anxiety and fewer outbursts with a pet in the home. There are many companion service dogs that help with autism, the disabled or the elderly in various forms of pet therapy. Sometimes a person may have a harder time relating to another human, but have no issues with a pet.
So if you are feeling blue, or like you will never get better, maybe a pet might change your outlook. Having something to take care of takes us out of ourselves a bit, and the joy and comfort that pets can bring are a welcome change while living through a trauma. If you already have pets, you already know how much they can make you feel better! If you don’t, perhaps spending some time with a friend or family member’s pets might give you an idea if owning one yourself is right for you. Find one that is compatible with your lifestyle and your physical limitations. If you can’t have a pet yourself, try volunteering at a local shelter where you can walk dogs or play with kittens.
The unbridled happiness that animals display when they see you might just help you keep going when times are tough. They won’t give up on you, so don’t you give up either. Now off to walk the dog…