How Pets Help People
Many of us enjoy the companionship of pets. In fact, according to a 1998 survey by the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, 61% of American households include pets. These animals don’t ask for much – just a short list of basics, such as food, shelter, veterinary care and, of course, our companionship. Pets offer far more in return, teaching us about love, improving our emotional and physical health and providing us with unconditional affection and friendship.
Do pets make good teachers? Companion animals are natural teachers. They help people of all ages learn about responsibility, loyalty, empathy, sharing and unconditional love – qualities particularly essential to a child’s healthy development. Through caring for a pet, children also learn to care for their fellow human beings. There is an established link between how people treat animals and how they treat each other. Kindness to animals is a lesson that benefits people, too.
Can pets be therapists? Given the right animal, people, and circumstances, pets can indeed serve as therapists. In animal-assisted therapy programs, a companion animal “therapist” may visit with hospital or nursing home patients. For the program to be safe and effective, the animal must be carefully screened and the pet’s caregiver must be trained to guide the animal-human interactions. When a specific therapy is desired, a credentialed professional should monitor the program. Even in less formal animal-assisted activities, where the animal is introduced to an individual or group with no specific therapeutic goal, patients and staff often experience improved morale and communication.
How do pets serve as helpers? Specially trained assistance dogs provide people who have physical and mental disabilities with the profound gift of independence. These dogs serve as the hands, ears or eyes of their human partners and assist them by performing everyday tasks that would otherwise be difficult or impossible. Dogs may also detect changes in behavior, body language or odor that precede seizures in their human partners, altering them so that they may seek a safe environment.
Can pets also be healers? Pets are good for our emotional and physical health. Caring for a companion animal provides a sense of purpose and fulfillment and lessens feelings of loneliness and isolation in all age groups. It’s well known that relaxed, happy people do not become ill as often as those who suffer from stress and depression.
Animal companionship also helps lower a person’s blood pressure and cholesterol levels and studies show that having a dog increases survival rates in groups of patients who have suffered cardiac arrest. Dog walking, pet grooming, and even petting provide increased physical activity that strengthens the heart, improves blood circulation and slows the loss of bone tissue. Put simply, pets aren’t just good friends, they are good medicine.
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