Whiskers, Woofs, and Wellness: How Pets Keep Us Feeling Fine

As part of the National Pet Month celebrations, Parizad from SCAS (Society for Companion Animal Studies) shares personal insights and presents research-backed findings on the many benefits of pet companionship.

Growing up amidst the hustle and bustle of Indian cities, I never had a pet that shared my house but there were always numerous ‘street cats’ and ‘street dogs’ in the vicinity. They became my steadfast friends, offering solace and companionship in a world that often felt overwhelming. For those unfamiliar with the Indian context, these are technically ‘unowned’ domestic animals, but they often have multiple humans caring for them and feeding them. Realising that these animals were more susceptible to injury and disease, I started taking the ones that needed medical attention to veterinarians for treatment. Before I knew it, I had befriended a couple of local vets and was actively involved in the local animal welfare, foster, rehoming, and ‘rescue’ scene.

It was during one such fostering experience that my life took a remarkable turn. Struggling with my own mental health, I found myself at a crossroads, searching for meaning amidst the chaos. And then, in a little bundle of fur no bigger than my palm, I found my lifeline: Tiny, a 10-day-old kitten in need of round-the-clock care. As I embarked on the journey of hand-raising Tiny, my days blurred into a whirlwind of feedings, cleanings, and endless cuddles. Amidst sleepless nights and bleary-eyed mornings, I experienced a revelation – a moment of clarity that changed everything. “What am I doing?” I pondered, as I syringe-fed Tiny in the middle of the week at my then workplace. “I am barely able to get any work done, and yet this is the most fulfilled I’ve ever felt. I want to devote myself to helping animals. I want to do this full-time!”

Fast forward seven years, and that epiphany has transformed into reality. Armed with a master’s degree in applied animal behaviour and welfare, a post-graduate diploma in animal protection law, and research experience with dogs, I have dedicated my career to improving the welfare of animals. My experiences with Tiny (I sometimes wonder who rescued whom) and the many furry and feathery friends I had before and after her, serve as personal anecdotes for how animals can change human lives. But you don’t have to take my word for it. Multiple scientific studies provide deeper insights into this.

As part of the National Pet Month celebrations, we at SCAS (Society for Companion Animal Studies) present research-backed findings on the many benefits of pet companionship.

1.     Reduced stress

Picture this: you’re curled up on the couch, your faithful animal companion nestled by your side, and the day’s worries seem to melt away. It’s not just your imagination – science supports the stress-reducing effects of pet companionship.

A study examining cardiovascular reactivity among 240 couples found that pet owners exhibited significantly lower resting heart rate and blood pressure levels compared to non-pet owners, significantly smaller increases (reactivity) when stressed, and faster recovery. These benefits are not limited to pet owners though. A scientific review found that interactions with companion animals were associated with an increase in oxytocin – the “love hormone” – which promotes feelings of calmness and well-being in humans. Petting a cat or dog for just 10 minutes has also been shown to reduce cortisol and provide momentary stress relief. So, the next time you’re stressed out, you know what to do! Just make sure you have their consent before you go for the cuddles and petting.

2.     Improved physical and heart health

Beyond providing emotional support, our pets may also hold the key to a healthier heart. A scientific statement from the American Heart Association found that pet ownership, particularly dog ownership, was associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease. A meta-analysis pooling data from over 3.8 million participants in ten different studies found that dog owners were 31% less likely to die from heart disease compared to others. A recent review also shows that pet ownership has a positive effect on the cardiovascular system, and suggests that these effects are related to the antihypertensive and cardioprotective mechanisms.

But how do our furry companions wield such a profound influence on our cardiovascular health? Research shows that people with pets are more likely to engage in regular physical activity. It also suggests that pet owners may have higher levels of social support, life satisfaction, happiness, and self-regulation. A Japanese study examining older community-dwelling adults showed that dog and cat ownership were both associated with increased social interaction and trust in neighbours. The companionship of a loving animal and a healthier lifestyle in a package deal? We aren’t going to say no to that!

3.     Gentler ageing

Life gets more challenging as we get older, affecting our physical and mental well-being. Fortunately, our furry companions can be of help and comfort.

A US-based study found deterioration in cognitive function with age was slower for pet owners compared to non-owners. Cat owners experienced less deterioration in memory and language function. Research in nursing homes showed that a 12-week intervention with animal-assisted activities had a positive effect on symptoms of depression and quality of life in older adults with dementia. A different study that included participants with very mild or mild Alzheimer’s disease found that, over a period of five years, pet owners had positive effects on daily activities, neuropsychiatric symptoms, and disease progression compared to those who had no pets. Other psychological changes during the ageing process include heightened feelings of loneliness and depression. Interactions with companion animals have proven to be beneficial in reducing these feelings, along with creating a greater sense of purpose and improved mental well-being.

These are just a few of the many paw-sitive benefits of pet companionship, to remind us to cherish that paw-some bond we share with our animals. Now that you’ve read how much they’re helping you live a healthier, happier life, indulge them with an extra cuddle, a longer walk, or their favourite treat today!

From left to right, author with foster kitten Tiny, and her two cats Simba and Dizzy

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SCAS is the UK’s leading human-companion animal bond organisation through funding research, providing education, raising awareness, encouraging best practice, and influencing the development of policies and practices that support the human-companion animal bond. For more details check out our website at www.scas.org.uk

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