The bond between humans and animals has been a subject of interest and research for many years.
This bond, often called the human-animal bond, is not just about companionship; it has profound implications for our mental and physical wellbeing.
Recent statistics show 76% of pet owners report that their health has improved due to owning a pet. Furthermore, 87% of pet owners state that they have experienced mental health improvements from pet ownership. Additionally, 83% of pet owners share that they spend much or most of the day with their pets.
Research studies have delved into the intricacies of this bond and its implications, and animal ownership seems to mitigate some detrimental psychological effects of challenging, uncertain times.
Another study highlighted that dog walking has numerous health benefits, including lower body mass index, fewer doctor visits, and more frequent exercise, especially for older adults.
Historical Context of Humans' Relationship with Animals
Throughout history, the symbiotic relationship between humans and animals has been pivotal in shaping societies and nurturing wellbeing. This relationship has evolved significantly, with animals playing various roles, from vital survival partners to therapeutic companions in modern healthcare settings.
Ancient Bonds and Survival
In ancient times, the bond between humans and animals was forged out of necessity. Hunter-gatherer societies relied heavily on animals, not just for food but also for companionship. This relationship was so integral that it influenced human habits, mythologies, and religions.
The Enlightenment Era and Therapeutic Approaches
The recognition of the therapeutic potential of human-animal relationships took a significant turn in the 18th century. In 1792, the York Retreat in England pioneered a humane approach to mental health treatment by incorporating animals into the therapeutic process.
Post World War One and the Introduction of Companion Animals
In the aftermath of World War One, we saw a renewed interest in the therapeutic use of animals. In 1919, Secretary of the Interior F.K. Lane suggested using dogs as companions for psychiatric patients at St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Washington, DC. This initiative underscored animals' comforting and healing presence, setting a precedent for future therapeutic interventions.
World War II and Beyond: Expanding the Role of Animals
As the world navigated the challenges of World War II, the Army Air Corps Convalescent Hospital in Pawling, N.Y., recognised the potential of animals as "companion animals" to aid in the recovery of servicemen.
As we reflect on history, it is evident that the human-animal bond is not just a modern phenomenon but a deeply ingrained aspect of human culture.
The Science of Pets and Human Health
The Multifaceted Benefits of Pet Ownership
According to a study published by the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP), the presence of animals has been proven to benefit physical, mental, and social health in both children and adults. The study shared that “[pet] owners are less likely to experience loneliness and depression, as pets provide social support (with similar effects to human-human relationships) and provide a sense of purpose.”
Understanding the Unspoken Bond
In the realm of human-animal relationships, there exists a fascinating phenomenon that many pet owners have personally experienced — the seemingly uncanny ability of pets to sense their owner's return home.
This phenomenon was investigated in a study spearheaded by the renowned scientist and author Rupert Sheldrake and dog owner Pamela Smart, documented in 1998, "A Dog That Seems To Know When His Owner is Returning: Preliminary Investigations".
The study centred around Jaytee, a dog owned by Pamela Smart. In 1991, Smart's parents observed that Jaytee appeared to anticipate Smart's return home, often waiting by a window around when she would come home.
To delve deeper into this phenomenon, Smart and her parents conducted 96 official observations between May 1994 and February 1995, documenting Jaytee's responses to Smart's departures and returns, even when she was as far as 51 kilometres away from home.
The findings were indeed intriguing.
On 82 occasions, Jaytee exhibited anticipatory behaviour 10 minutes or more before Smart's return, establishing a statistically significant relationship between Jaytee's responses and Smart's movements.
Interestingly, the mode of transportation Smart used — be it a cab or otherwise — had no bearing on Jaytee's response consistency.
Beyond Scientific Explanation
One of the most compelling pieces of evidence came from a test where Smart was instructed to return home randomly, with her movements and Jaytee's responses captured on film.
Remarkably, Jaytee responded just 11 seconds after Smart was asked to return home, a phenomenon that remains unexplained by science.
While the exact science behind this deep connection is yet to be fully unravelled, it is undeniable that the bond between humans and their pets is extraordinary, offering comfort, companionship, and a sense of understanding that transcends verbal communication.
The Special Bond Between Children and Pets
In the modern world, where stress and anxiety are commonplace, pets are silent guardians, offering comfort and reducing our daily pressures.
The Role of Animals in Improving Postoperative Outcomes
Pets have a remarkable ability to reduce stress and anxiety in their owners.
A study conducted a few years ago with children who had just undertaken surgery looked at the influence of animals on pain and recovery. Faster “electroencephalogram diffuse beta-activity" was seen in those who had the 20-minute bonding time with a dog, indicating increased alertness and cognitive processing in the brain.
In the context of recovery, these brainwave changes suggest that the children in the animal-assisted therapy group were more mentally alert and engaged when exposed to the dog. This heightened brain activity can benefit cognitive functions and overall mental wellbeing, potentially aiding recovery.
Notably, kids with the dog therapy felt less pain than the others.
Pets and Child Development
Furthermore, the study by RACGP highlights that having a pet can enhance a child's sense of pride and responsibility, teaching them valuable life lessons about care, empathy, and commitment. Children's self-esteem, independence, and empathy may all benefit from time spent with pets.
“Children who own pets show increased trust, community feeling, safety, [and] self-confidence”, the study shared.
Therapy Animals: A Beacon of Hope for Hospitalised Children
Therapy animals have long been recognised for their healing potential, especially in supporting sick children. The introduction of pet gardens in hospitals like the Sydney Children's Hospital is a testament to the therapeutic power of animals.
These gardens, a pioneering initiative supported by the Petbarn Foundation, will allow sick children to spend precious moments with their beloved pets, offering solace and comfort during their recovery.
George Wahby, CEO of Greencross Pet Wellness Company, expressed his pride in supporting this noble cause, stating, "The Petbarn Foundation is honoured to collaborate with the Sydney Children's Hospitals Foundation to introduce the first-ever pet gardens at The Children's Hospital at Westmead and Sydney Children's Hospital, Randwick."
By 2025, both redevelopment projects will be complete, bringing the joy of pet gardens to thousands of young patients and their families annually.
The Diverse Mental Health Benefits of Different Pets
The companionship of pets has been celebrated for centuries, not just for the joy they bring but for the myriad of mental health benefits they offer. Each pet has unique advantages, catering to diverse lifestyles and needs.
Dogs: Companions for the Active and Sociable
Dogs often prove to be the ideal companions for those with an energetic and outgoing disposition. Or those who are more introverted but would like to come out of their shell and bond casually with like-minded dog owners at a local dog park.
Known for their loyalty, affection, and zest for life, dogs give their owners a sense of purpose and energy. From little dogs like Dachshund, Jack Russell Terriers, Shih Tzu, and Miniature Schnauzer to large varieties, like Black Russian Terrier, English Mastiff or Great Dane, you can choose how energetic you’d like your companion to be naturally and how many walks per day you’re interested in.
It goes without saying at this point, but dogs require consistent time and effort. If your lifestyle is hectic, it might be worth considering a pet that demands less attention.
Cats: Affectionate Companions for the Busy Bee
With their independent yet affectionate nature, cats are perfect for those who lead busy lives. They offer the comfort of companionship without the constant need for attention that dogs demand. Their purring, playful antics, and gentle nudges can be incredibly soothing, especially after a long day. A cat might be the perfect fit for those who feel pressed for time but still yearn for a furry friend.
Birds: Melodious Friends for the Homebound
With their vibrant colours and melodic tunes, birds can be a source of joy and relaxation. Their chirping can uplift spirits, and training them can be challenging and rewarding. Birds, especially parrots, can also offer companionship, mimicking voices and engaging in playful interactions.
Fish: The Low-Maintenance Stress Relievers
Fish are one of the most low-maintenance pets one can own. Beyond their minimal care requirements, there's a therapeutic quality to watching fish glide gracefully in their aquatic abode. According to a study highlighted by the Mental Health Association in Delaware, having fish can alleviate anxiety, induce calming effects, and even help lower blood pressure.
Small Mammals: Pocket-Sized Companions
Small mammals like guinea pigs and rabbits (if state laws allow them) can be delightful alternatives for those who might find cats or dogs too demanding. These little creatures, with their curious eyes and playful nature, can offer companionship without the extensive care requirements of larger pets.
Whether you're seeking an active companion, a musical friend, or a serene presence, there's a pet that's perfect for your lifestyle and needs.
As we reflect on human-animal relationships and their profound impact on mental and emotional wellbeing, several takeaways emerge:
- Pets can alleviate loneliness, reduce anxiety, and provide a sense of purpose
- Animals can help therapeutically in times of stress or crisis
- Recognise your needs and circumstances to choose the right pet for you