By Amanda N. Wegner
Pets are amazing creatures.
When one of Dr. Steven Benzon’s staff members lost her son, she says that if it hadn’t been for her dogs, she may have never gotten up in the morning: “They gave me a reason to get up, get on with my day and my life,” she said.
This is just one of many real-life anecdotes that Benzon, owner of Delavan Animal Clinic, can share about how people benefit from the companionship of a pet. His anecdotes are supported by thousands of articles and years of scientific research documenting the health and well-being benefits that humans gain from their animal friends.
“There are many great reasons to own a pet, but when it comes to it, the companionship and the unconditional love pets offer are the best reasons,” says Benzon.
HEALING THE BODY, MIND AND SOUL
Without question, pets offer physical, emotional and overall health benefits, says Dr. Chris Welch of the Lake Geneva Animal Hospital.
“People who own pets, especially dogs, tend to exercise more,” says Welch, and getting out with a pet can increase or enhance socialization — your dog’s playful personality, big brown eyes or latest trick are natural conversation starters.
“From the emotional perspective, there’s this deep sense of responsibility and connection that pet owners have,” says Welch. “Our pets rely on us for taking care of them.”
“Some of my clients joke that they take better care of their pets than they did their kids,” he adds, smiling.
In the last three decades, research has shown the amazing mental, emotional and physiological benefits that pets can offer humans beyond the frequent walks around the block.
For instance, pets help lower blood pressure and decrease anxiety. Heart attack patients who own pets survive longer than those who don’t, and male pet owners have fewer markers of heart disease than non-owners. Studies have shown that Alzheimer’s patients have fewer anxious outbursts if there is a pet around.
How is this possible? Playing with a dog or petting a cat can elevate levels of serotonin and dopamine, two chemical neurotransmitters that control emotional response (dopamine) and mood (serotonin) to help calm the body and mind, and can decrease levels of cortisol, a stress hormone.
“It’s very, very seldom that a pet is unhappy,” says Welch. “When you walk in at the end of a long, stressful day and your pet is just there, happy, tail wagging, waiting for you, that puts a smile on your face. As people, we can learn a lot from dogs, cats and other pets. They don’t require a lot, but they are always loving and happy to see us.”
Benzon has witnessed a similar response in his own sister who is disabled; the nursing home where she resides has a resident dog that watches over and visits with patients. “To see the patients as this dog comes up and sits by them, the relaxed attitude they develop when the dog comes up, it’s amazing to see. My sister has commented that she just loves her dog,” says Benzon.
He notes that his wife, a hospice chaplain, sees these benefits as well in her work with people at the end of their lives. “Pets provide a real comfort for those patients,” says Benzon. “To see and hold a dog or cat, it gives a sense of peace and comfort.”
A number of research studies, including one done at UW-Madison, have shown that children who are exposed to furry animals have less risk for allergies and asthma. Another study showed that when pets were present in alternative-school classrooms, students fared better and were more at ease. Another study showed that elderly dog owners visit the doctor less each year compared to those who don’t own dogs. These are but a few of the scientific findings supporting the benefits of pet ownership.
While it may seem like dog owners have the most to gain, all pet owners reap benefits from the relationship they have with their pets. “Different people get different things out of their pet … some people have snakes and actually interact,” says Welch. “Across the board, pets have a very positive influence in any scenario.”
“When you walk in at the end of a long, stressful day and your pet is just there, happy, tail wagging, waiting for you, that puts a smile on your face. As people, we can learn a lot from dogs, cats and other pets. They don’t require a lot, but they are always loving and happy to see us.”
-Dr. Chris Welch, DVM Lake Geneva Animal Hospital
PAYING IT FORWARD
Recognizing the many health and wellbeing benefits that animal companions offer, some pet owners choose to “pay it forward” by enrolling their pets, primarily dogs, in therapy programs like Pet Pals through the UW-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine.
Clinical Associate Professor of Small Animal Surgery Dr. Robb Hardie and his dog were Pet Pals volunteers for two years, spending time with patients at the UW Children’s Hospital a few times each month. “For the children, some who have been in the hospital for weeks at a time, these interactions were priceless and incredibly beneficial,” says Hardie. “It’s a lot of work to get involved with a program like Pet Pals, but it’s quite gratifying and humbling and really puts life in perspective.”
Pets and their humans in therapy programs must undergo a rigorous screening process, including health exams and behavioral assessments. Regular health checkups are also required. In addition to Pet Pals, some area hospitals run and organize their own pet therapy programs; another option in Wisconsin is the nonprofit Dogs on Call.
IT’S A COMMITMENT
Unfortunately, pets are not right for everyone. “Often, especially in this day and age of immediate gratification, getting a pet is an impulse purchase or adoption. That can really make it tough,” says Welch. “This is a lifelong commitment to an animal: 10 to 15 years for a dog, 15 to 20 for a cat, and some birds, like African grays, can live for 80 to 90 years. You need to know what you’re up against and be committed.”
Some primary issues to consider when contemplating the addition of a pet to your home and family are time and money. “Time is a big thing,” says Welch. “If you’re 40, working and have four kids you’re running everywhere, it’ll be tough to get a puppy that needs lots of time and attention.”
Consider your personal schedule, work schedule and family structure: “A dog can’t be left alone for a long period of time; it needs to go out, get exercise, have interaction. If your schedule has you out of the house for long hours during the day, maybe there’s a better pet for you,” says Benzon.
Money is another consideration; pet ownership isn’t always cheap. Welch explains that, for instance, some dog breeds have known physical issues, like hip problems, that can be costly.
Other considerations include physical ability of the owner, size of the pet, availability of spaces to exercise the pet, the general personality of the breed, and more.
“While it’s important to think long and hard about committing to a pet and how it can fit into your life, the benefits of pet ownership in children, adults and older people on a day-to-day basis are undeniable,” says Welch. “If owning a pet is a good fit for you, it’ll be a wonderful addition to your home, family and life.