I’ve always liked pets, but from a distance. Raised by a mother convinced that animals cannot possibly live under the same roof as people, I adopted a similar opinion, which I kept for many years, even if a great number of people tried to prove me wrong.
Recently, however, I gave in to requests to adopt a cat. So, before the big event, we searched far and wide on the internet, to know what the necessary preparations are and what to expect after the inclusion of a little furry friend in our family of two.
Among the materials I read, I discovered articles that referred to many arguments in favour of living with a pet such as a dog or a cat. Since the 1980s, researchers have focused on studying the effects that human-animal interactions have on people. Dogs have been shown to have the ability to get deeply attached to their owners, rightly being called “man’s best friend”. It’s been said they possess a special intelligence which allows them to interpret our messages, tone of voice, body language, and facial expressions. Cats are said to help reduce negative emotions, even when it comes to simply watching a video in which cats purr, sleep, or play freely.
More than just company
Beyond scientific observations, we can intuitively understand certain benefits of having one or more pets. They provide company, set us in motion, add structure to our daily routine, teach responsibility to children, help the elderly to feel valuable, and soothe loneliness.
Among other things, their presence can help with the human need for touch, which, once satisfied, improves our mood and behaviour. Some studies show that inmates change their behaviour for the better after petting and playing with animals; or that minors diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders who grow up with cats develop more positive behaviours.
In addition to being a good tool for emotional regulation, the sense of touch is also a tool for the sensory release of stress, similar to exercise. Thus, the company of an animal, which encompasses both, contributes significantly to reducing stress. At the same time, exercise plays an important role in maintaining good health. According to a 2019 study, survivors of a stroke or heart attack, who live alone but have dogs, have a 33% lower risk of dying than those who do not own dogs, because they exercise daily.
The therapeutic effects of the human-animal relationship
Even if not all of it is in complete agreement, most research recognizes the therapeutic effects of the human-animal relationship. For example, a study of children with cancer did not identify major differences in the levels of anxiety between children involved in dog therapy and the others, but observed differences among parents, a sign that the effects may also be indirect. On the other hand, a 2015 study records positive results of this therapeutic approach in the behaviour of children diagnosed with ADHD.
Whether it is animal-assisted therapy in long-term or short-term interactions, the positive impact of animals on our well-being cannot be disputed. The literature lists several effects felt in terms of social interactions, but also in the fight against stress, anxiety and pain.
In the foreground, the social catalyst function of being around a pet is being analysed. A 2004 experiment showed that people change their behaviour towards a stranger if the latter is accompanied by a dog. In the experiment, 1,800 subjects were analysed when interacting with a female stranger, in six different situations: with a Labrador puppy, an adult Labrador, an adult Rottweiler, a plant, a teddy bear, or when she was alone. The woman received the most attention from strangers when she was accompanied by a dog (especially the little one) and was ignored when she was alone.
The social benefits have been confirmed in relation to various contexts. For example, some studies show that the presence of a dog in primary school teaching means more attention from students to the teacher, and other studies show that occupational therapy that includes animals facilitates the involvement of children with autism in social interactions, or that patients in psychiatric units resonate more easily with each other (through smiles, or receptivity) if they get involved in such activities.
The presence of a pet also influences the degree of trust we give to the owner, by increasing their credibility. A 2006 study asked participants (students) to watch the video presentations of two psychotherapists and then evaluate them according to the credibility transmitted. The results found that the psychotherapist bolstered by canine presence received the most votes of confidence.
In fact, dogs are generally associated with the manifestation of prosocial behaviour. A 2008 experiment aimed to analyse the reactions of people faced with three distinct situations: when they were asked for money by some random person on the street, when they were asked for their phone number by a stranger (in the case of women), or when they were around someone who had dropped their coins in the middle of the street. Most subjects offered a helping hand (and their phone number) to the person with a dog.
Animals and mental health
Animals also relieve anxiety. Faced with a tarantula, the protagonists of a 2003 experiment were informed that they might be asked to hold it in their hands. They were then divided into five groups which had to pet either a rabbit or a turtle, a toy rabbit or a toy turtle, or to rest, before having to interact with the tarantula. Subjects who touched real animals reported lower levels of anxiety, compared to the other participants.
Patients with schizophrenia also reported a lower state of anxiety after a clinical interview, when the interview took place in the presence of a friendly furry friend (2010). Likewise, people with different psychiatric diagnoses, involved in a 12-week program of animal-assisted therapy with farm animals, became less anxious than those in the control group, with changes being observed at follow-up, approximately 6 months after the end of the experiment (2011).
Animal contact also improves children’s mood, not just the mood of adults with mental health issues. At the same time, it also helps the elderly, as shown by a 2006 experiment with senior residents who were given a canary for a period of 3 months, during which they faced fewer depressive states than the baseline.
The anti-stress effects of animal contact are attested to by specific measurements of cortisol, adrenaline, and noradrenaline. According to a study, when people interact with their dog or even with one at random, their level of stress is lower than it is when they rest or read their favourite book. Another study suggests that patients with heart failure have their stress hormone levels adjusted if they receive visitors accompanied by a dog.
The role of cats
Cats have the same achievements when it comes to improving people’s lives, or even extending their lives. A study published in Medical News Today found that people living with cats have a lower risk of having a heart attack, and a 2011 survey shows that the purr of cats often wards off the stress caused by the start of the work week and most daily worries.
“Sitting with a relaxed purring cat at the end of a hectic day is a soothing massage for the soul”, says Beth
Skillings, a clinical veterinary officer at Cats Protection in the UK.
Early-life exposure to cats influences us emotionally, but also physically. Children in constant contact with household furry pets are more resistant to allergies and less likely to become obese, due to early exposure to two gut bacteria with a protective role (Ruminococcus and Oscillospira).
Other possible benefits
Although publications are limited in this regard, it is believed that interaction with animals also has positive effects on learning. Some researchers believe that involving a dog in an educational setting enhances children’s attention and concentration, reduces stress and creates a pleasant social situation, which is an essential component for the optimal functioning of the three cognitive processes essential for learning: working memory, inhibitory control, and cognitive flexibility.
Some studies illustrate that children feel more relaxed in the presence of a pet when performing certain tasks and therefore achieve higher performance levels in activities that test their motor skills (regardless of development level).
Without being 100% conclusive, there is also research that correlates a reduction in the amount of pain relievers administered in residential centres with the presence of pets, thus suggesting that a constant relationship with fur friends changes the perception of pain. The category of related studies also includes those about improving the immune system, reducing aggressiveness or increasing empathy as a result of a strong human-animal bond.
Although their influence on us is not entirely known, research paints a reality that is hard to dispute: animals really help people to have a better, more peaceful, and healthier life, bringing smiles to the faces of those who offer them affection.
As for me, my short experience with the new family member makes me subscribe to this reality and not regret the choice I made.