Americans are wild about pets. Nearly 70 percent of American households include a pet of some type, be it a dog, cat, fish, reptile, bird, horse, rodent, or some type of furry mammal. The most popular pets are canines and felines, with approximately 70 to 80 million dogs and 74 to 96 million cats residing in American homes. That’s a whole lot of fur!
So why do people have pets? The reasons are varied, including companionship, enjoyment, stress relief, unconditional loyalty, fun, assistance, and exercise. Whatever the reason, for many of us (including myself), that pet becomes an integral part of our lives and family, and the bond becomes unbreakable.
As a child, I brought home every stray that crossed my path. My parents were very tolerant, even when I lost track of a four-foot bull snake that my mother found snuggled up in her bed. I adore all animals, but the one that changed my life was Nemo, the wonder dog.
Nemo was a fully trained Shih Tzu up for adoption, and my daughter needed a therapy dog for her PTSD—the fit was perfect. We got him to help her with panic attacks, but he ended up being an emotional support for us both. Countless times, he sat quietly by my side while I wept over my daughter’s pain and uncertain future. I found it difficult to share my sadness and worry with humans; it felt too heavy and hurt too much to talk about. But little Nemo was there through it all, lifting my spirits and providing companionship in my loneliness. Any time our world started spinning out of control, he was there—no matter how deep the pain, how bad the mood, or how dark the moment.
We lost Nemo to cancer five months ago, and the heartache was nearly unbearable. I now try to focus on the decade of joy, service, and love he gave us. His memory will be cherished forever.
In thinking about Nemo, I can’t help but reflect on how powerful and healing the connection can be between humans and animals. Not only are they great companions, they can also improve our mental and physical health. Studies have shown interactions with animals benefit us in many ways, including reducing depression symptoms, detecting medical problems (such as seizures and allergens), lowering blood pressure and cholesterol levels, alleviating symptoms of PTSD and anxiety, increasing self-esteem and happiness, and reducing our risk of heart disease and heart attacks. In addition, playing with an animal can raise our levels of serotonin and dopamine and offer sensory stress relief.
Animals have been used in prisons to rehabilitate inmates, in hospitals to calm patients, in educational settings to lower stress in students, and in Alzheimer’s residential settings to reduce anxiety and emotional outbursts. Animals are also used to help children who have autism and other special needs stay safe, relate better to others, reduce anxiety, and focus better on learning. And let’s not forget the dedicated service animals, particularly dogs, who spend their lives protecting, rescuing, and helping humans.
Perhaps the best benefit of all is that pets often provide the unconditional acceptance and connection we all seek in life. In the words of French poet Anatole France, “Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.”
Even those who don’t have pets can benefit from being around animals by volunteering at an animal shelter, fostering animals, walking a neighbor’s dog, interacting with dogs at the park, pet sitting, gazing at a fish tank, bird watching, or just viewing a wacky cat or dog video on the internet to make you smile.
Has your life been changed by an animal? Is interacting with an animal or pet included in your WRAP or as one of your wellness tools? We’d love to hear about the animals that have helped with your journey to well-being. Let us know by commenting on Facebook or sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. I will share some of your stories in future articles.