Why loving a pet is good for your health and happiness.
Originally posted in Psychology Today
While precise health benefits of having pets are still being researched1, there is no question that millions of us take great pleasure in cohabitating with them. There is so much to love! Therapy dogs are taken for comfort to clinics; horses are ridden for sensitivity training; cats—when in the mood—are cuddled with; birds are taught words and crazy dance moves. We’ve seen it all.
I was raised in kids’ pet heaven with cats, dogs, hamsters, and many more. While we, the kids, loved the critters, my parents kept their emotional distance. Not only did the pets cost them money and time, they felt that investing feelings into animals was frivolous, if not immoral. During their own childhood, they had almost starved to death and seen horrific suffering due to the horrors of World War II. They were survivors and quite unwilling to spend their empathic energy on any but the human animal.
I thought my siblings and I were going to withhold likewise, feeling slightly snobbish when others referred to themselves as “daddies” and “mommies” of their dachshunds and miniature pinschers. But we could not help ourselves and became emotionally attached to our pets. They felt part of our family.
Three weeks ago, my adult sister’s guinea pig died. His name was Thymo. My sister confided in me that she thinks of him every day, calling him lovingly “my little man,” which elicited a shy smile on her face. Was I to judge her for her sentiment as our mother would have? I did not. Instead, I became curious about what exactly caused her to feel so much for such a small, simple creature. I inquired about her attachment to Thymo. My sister welcomed the opportunity to share what amounted to a eulogy.
“Thymo was a survivor. I adopted him from a pound where he had been dropped off by a woman who could no longer take care of him. In the beginning, it was impossible to hold him—guinea pigs are naturally flight animals. But I took care of him when he got abscesses in his mouth. In his life with us, he had to be force-fed several times for three to four days as he would refuse to eat. It sounds disgusting, but when he got better with his medicine and my feeding, I was absolutely delighted. He made it through, and I tamed through his ordeal. Instead of fleeing from me, he came running to me and eventually ate from my hand. It is incredible what he overcame. Just sweet.”
“So, you bonded with him as you took care of him?”
“Yes, and he bonded with me. He came to me and ate from my hand. He wanted meto feed him, and I knew his favorite food: basil. While he also loved parsley, grapes, and bananas, he just loved basil. When I came to give him basil, he ran down the ramp, stood on his hind legs, and ate with delight…I know I am projecting all kinds of feelings into Thymo, but he knew me. When I walked up the stairs to feed him, he reacted differently to my gait than to all others’ gaits. He got excited. The best part was that he whistled back when I whistled in the house. We communicated, based on mywalking style and mywhistle.”
“Would you say that he meant so much to you because he recognized you?”
Here my sister stopped. He eyes watered, and she sighed nodding,
“When he was sick again and could not clean himself, I bathed him. Guinea pigs are very clean animals, so I made sure he felt good. In the end, he did not run down the ramp. No more whistles. His new abscess was too much for him. On his last day, he ate one leaf of basil from my hand. It was his last meal.”
I felt my sister’s pain. She was special to him as he was special to her. However little and simple the “piggy” was, the two had a dynamically changing, complex relationship with an individualized, ritualized, personal greeting. He was worth every tear.
Let me state clearly here that not everybody should have a pet. Pets have benefits but they are up and foremost beings who live for the sake of living their own lives. Not everybody ought to adopt an animal –we must be able to take care of the creature once COVID-19 is over. But if you can handle the responsibility, I truly understand why you want to cohabit with one. We are less alone and healthier when we have pets because many pets require us to move more and…
1. Exercise. There is nothing like going for a walk or run with a dog, as Ratey and Manning describe so well in their book, Go Wild.2 Some people walk with their cats, rabbits, and birds. Just make sure that your pet actually enjoys exercising with you. Another pet benefit is that we get to…
2. Take care of someone. No story describes this benefit better than Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, which was also made into a feature film. In this story, a person who was shipwrecked survives because he had to take care of a dangerous tiger, an intense focal point. We tend to become strong when we help others and assume responsibility. Pets remind us of purpose. In addition, pets allow us to…
3. Take care of something. Some pets communicate very little and do not care about us specifically. However, taking care of them makes for a great hobby, allowing us to forget about ourselves and generate flow experiences. (To learn more about flow, please refer to Part I in “A Unified Theory of Happiness.”) There is so much to receive from pets, namely…
4. Feel safe and reassured. Pets alarm us when strangers approach or situations change. It is good to have non-judgmental, reliable companions in life. Ratey and Manning write in Go Wild that “A sense of safety is critical. If you can, sleep around others, and this may include traditional sentry animals like dogs.”3Just hearing our critters breathe at night creates a sense of wellbeing in many of us. Maybe most important, pets make us…
5. Feel recognized. It is such a human need to be recognized as an individual. We need intimacy. As felt especially during COVID-19, we suffer when we are isolated. I have said many times that “loneliness is a killer” in my blog posts (see “10 Tips that Can Help You Past Loneliness“). The flipside is that feeling recognized and connected makes us feel most engaged and happy in life. Finally, pets allow us to…
6. Experience encounters. We feel so alone on planet Earth. Besides having become socially isolated, many of us experience existential dread. When we feel our interconnectedness with our pets, we might transcend the concrete relationship and experience something more encompassing, which lies in the essence of all things and all beings. For many people, feeling our Oneness is easiest with living beings: Our pets may just help us slip into total awareness.
1) John Bradshaw (2018). Do Pets Really Reduce Healthcare Costs? Psychology Today: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/pets-and-their-people/201802/do-pets-really-reduce-healthcare-costs
2) John J. Ratey & Richard Manning (2014). Go Wild: Eat Fat, Run Free, Be Social, and Fellow Evolution’s Other Rules for Total Health and Well-Being.
3) John J. Ratey & Richard Manning (2014). Go Wild: Eat Fat, Run Free, Be Social, and Fellow Evolution’s Other Rules for Total Health, p. 147.
© 2020 Andrea F. Polard, PsyD. All Rights Reserved.