Pet therapy

This morning I met the most adorable little puppy. Long spaniel ears, big chocolate eyes, silky grey fur and a little white tipped tail.

My friend had been going through a rough time and her husband had brought the puppy home as a surprise hoping to cheer her up. This sounds much more romantic when recounted than the initial meeting was in real life. My friend is a dog lover, but she and her husband had a lot on their plates, live in London and aren’t blessed with a shedload of space. 

Getting a puppy is often compared to looking after a baby. Long story short, there were a few interesting conversations to be had after the arrival of the little bundle of fur.

Four months later however, she wouldn’t trade in the puppy for anything. Sure, there were night-time wakings and unenviable incidents with poop, but the snuggles on the sofa, the friendship blossoming between her daughter and the little dog, and the walks out as a family made it worthwhile. 

She’d also underestimated the attention that having a dog, particularly a charming puppy, brings with it. Although a little disconcerting at first, particularly in a year of “social isolation”, the small, passing connections with strangers throughout the day often proved a real mood-boost and reminder that not all is scary out there.

Many of us have heard of some of the health benefits that come from having a pet. Studies have shown that pet owners are less likely to suffer from depression, have lower levels of blood pressure and cholesterol, and increased serotonin. Pets can ease anxiety and loneliness and encourage exercise and play.

A lot of these benefits come from the fact that pets fulfil our basic human need for touch. Stroking or hugging a pet is both calming and soothing. 

Emotional support animals are now making their way into common parlance. These are pets that have been licensed by a therapist, psychologist, doctor or similar professional as part of an individual’s ongoing mental health treatment. The pet provides comfort, and its presence minimises the symptoms of the person’s mental or psychological condition.

Testament to the therapeutic nature of animals is the trend for “cow hugging” which has recently caught on in the Netherlands. Their warm bodies and slightly lower heart rates make them the perfect cuddling companion. It also seems that the oxytocin released when snuggling our everyday pets is magnified when bonding with the larger mammal.

Does our affinity for pets represent what we really value in life? Love, companionship and a connection to nature? At the very least hanging out with a lovely animal is an easy bit of wellbeing advice to follow. I am personally more of a cat person, but that puppy really won me over!

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