The health benefits of having pets

While all age groups can benefit physically and psychologically, children could have the greatest advantages to gain. For many kids, the pet represents a source of security, as well as acting as the role of confidante and playmate

The notion that ‘pets are good for us’ is by no means a new one.  Indeed, the health benefits of animals were probably recognised as early as the 19 Century, when Florence Nightingale, in her Notes on Nursing, indicated that people confined to the same room because of medical problems gained pleasure from the presence of a bird.

Modern day scientific research on the human-animal bond supports the long-held belief that animals have much to offer us, leading to a wide range of physical and psychological health benefits.  For example, the mere action of stroking a pet or watching fish swimming in an aquarium can serve as a powerful stress-buster, temporarily lowering heart-rate and blood pressure.

Various studies have shown that pet owners are a healthier bunch than non-owners, showing fewer annual trips to the doctors, and, in the event of becoming ill, suffering from fewer serious ailments.  The ownership of a pet, and more so a dog than a cat, can also, quite remarkably, increase our chances of recovering from serious health conditions.  Indeed one American study found that dog owners were 8.6 times more likely to still be alive one year after a heart attack than people who didn’t own a dog.  

From a psychological perspective, pets can help us to make friends, acting as strong social ‘lubricants’.  This, in turn, can help to reduce our feelings of isolation and depression, enhance feelings of self-worth, self-esteem and autonomy.  The health benefits that are gained from pets is perhaps most apparent in those residing in residential settings, and it is now commonplace to see so called ‘animal-assisted therapy’ schemes in hospitals, prisons, schools and nursing homes.

 

While all age-groups can benefit from owing a pet, children could be considered to have the greatest advantages to gain.  For many kids, the pet represents a source of security, opening up a channel for the discussion of subconscious fears and worries.  This may be a particular advantage to children suffering the trials of parental divorce, bereavement, illness or other circumstances leading to emotional vulnerability.  One recent, as yet unpublished, study from Cambridge has found that vulnerable children actually confide more in their pets than their siblings and hints that the relationship between young people and their pets may be more complex than we have realised to date.

In addition to the role of confidante and, of course, playmate, pets can also serve a useful educational role for children, helping them learn about life and death and teaching them the important life-skills of taking responsibility, time management, sharing and caring for others.  Pet ownership may also have a role to play in the development of personality.   Some studies, for instance, have reported that children who grow up with pets are more nurturing and empathetic as adults, while yet others have found pet-owning children to show higher levels of self-esteem and more advanced cognitive development.

Medical studies provide some evidence to suggest that being raised with pets can decrease the chances of a child going on to develop asthma, ear infections and reactions to airborne allergens, possibly as a result of changes to the child’s immune system.  Various methodological problems have been highlighted with some of this work, however, and further study is needed to explore the link between childhood pet ownership and allergic response more thoroughly.  

It must be remembered that animals have the potential to pose enormous threat to human health, spreading disease, inducing allergies, inflicting bites and triggering psychological trauma.  Pets should certainly not be regarded as a perfect pill for treating ill-health.  Nonetheless, employed in the correct manner, and targeted at the appropriate user group, animals have the potential to contribute significantly to our well-being and quality of lives, particularly those of children.

Dr Deborah Wells, Reader Behavioural Development and Welfare, School of Psychology, Queen's University Belfast

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