There are moments when this world can seem scary. Despite living amid the lush and relaxing landscape of the Virginia countryside, it’s still easy to feel anxious these days. A madman in Florida does the unthinkable. Mother Nature shows us her dark side. Political discord intensifies. Tragedy rears its ugly head time and time again. And no matter how many times people tell themselves to be brave and strong, it’s still human to become overwhelmed.
For pet owners, however, there is a bright spot when it comes to stress. It turns out that people who share their lives with dogs have a distinct advantage over those who do not. Specifically, dogs calm anxiety and lift mood. Health benefits of interacting with a pet include: reduced incidence of depression; lower triglyceride and cholesterol levels; lower blood pressure in stressful situations; and elevated levels of serotonin and dopamine.
These perks are hardly recent news, of course. For example, the Harvard Health Blog cites a 1995 study that followed 369 people with heart disease. A year later, those who owned a dog were four times more likely to be alive than those who didn’t have a dog. It’s well established that dogs do wonders for human health.
What is news is that we are harnessing the healing power of animals in novel ways. K-9 Comfort Dogs, for instance, sends animals into the aftermath of crises like the ones in Newtown and Orlando, as well as natural disasters like super storm Sandy, to soothe victims and their families. In fact, there is still a dog stationed at Sandy Hook to this day. K-9 Comfort Dogs started in August 2008 with four dogs and now includes more than 100 dogs in 23 states. The impact these animals have on the traumatized and grieving is dramatic and immediate.
While dogs rule the day when it comes to helping people in times of duress, other animals can be beneficial too. Pet Partners has 11,000 registered teams of handlers and animals visiting hospitals, nursing homes, schools, as well as those who have experienced tragedy, natural disaster, and war. Most of the teams include dogs, but some use cats, horses, rabbits, guinea pigs, birds, pigs, and chickens. The work this organization has done since its formation in the mid-1970s has been groundbreaking.
There’s also a non-profit research and education group called HABRI (Human Animal Bond Research Initiative) that is dedicated solely to gathering, funding, and sharing scientific research that demonstrates the positive health impacts of animals on people. It’s fascinating how much public policy around this cause is out there and in need of support. If you’re interested in learning more, I highly recommend going to habri.org and spending some time on the site – so enlightening!
My little column can hardly do justice to all that we’ve learned and are learning about how people benefit from interaction with animals. Sadly, we have a long way to go before we can see an end to the intense suffering inflicted on animals by too many human hands. It is encouraging, however, to see so much positive research and collaboration. The tides are turning.
If you’re lucky enough to share your home with a pet, remember that your animal friend might just be your best medicine in difficult times. If you begin to feel anxious or depressed, take a deep breath and spend a few minutes petting, walking, or just talking to the animal or animals in your life. We can help you weather any storm!
Albert, a Jack Russell Terrier, is Chairman of the Board of Wylie Wagg, a shop for dogs, cats, and their people, with locations in VA and DC.