Puppy mania has been a feature of the pandemic with over three million households acquiring new pets to pass the time with during lockdowns. There’s plenty of evidence of the mental health benefits of having a furry friend and never has there been a greater need for the comfort and companionship they provide.
It’s dogs that pull at our heartstrings the most, followed by cats. Around a third of us have dogs and more than a quarter of homes have a cat. Just stroking a much-loved pet is therapy. Numerous studies show how caring for animals reduces loneliness and stress.
Animals were used in mental health institutions in the late 18th century to encourage socialisation. Today, therapy dogs are used to support treatment for a range of mental health disorders including depression, schizophrenia and addictions.
“Some traumatised people relate to animals
better than people”
Some traumatised people relate to animals better than people. Pets also help with specific conditions. For example, ADHD sufferers benefit from the structure and routine that a pet needs.
Taking responsibility for feeding, playing with and exercising a pet is a great way to relieve stress and burn off excess energy. The unconditional love of a pet helps those with autism build social skills and confidence, creating a sense of calm and reducing sensory overload.
I’m always reassured when a traumatised client going through difficult times has a much-loved pet to focus their attention on. In times of divorce or illness, for example, a dog, cat, lizard or budgie can seem like an only friend in an otherwise cold and heartless world.
Researchers have discovered that the bond between owner and pet is similar to that between a mother and baby. Oxytocin, the so-called ‘hug’, ‘love’ or ‘cuddle’ hormone has a key role in both mother-infant and human-pet bonding. This is no surprise when you think about how soppy and besotted the owner of a new puppy or rescue cat becomes. We also make incredible sacrifices for our pets, in some cases spending more on them than our children.
The boom in animal ownership has resulted in unprecedented growth in sales for pet food manufacturers and other animal products and services. It seems that keeping a pet is more expensive than ever.
A dog is for life, not just for lockdown but five per cent of new pandemic pet owners have chosen not to keep them, according to the Pet Food Manufacturers’ Association.
It reports that more than a third of all new pet owners found their new acquisition more trouble than they anticipated. On the positive side, 74 per cent said their pet helped them stay mentally healthy while coping with coronavirus curbs.
The RSPCA predicts a ‘crisis’ for animals purchased in lockdowns when owners return to work and no longer lavish so much attention on them.
Walk round any neighbourhood in the middle of the day and you’re likely to hear the lonesome bark of a solitary dog shut away for eight hours or more.
Pack animals like dogs need company, as some owners will discover when they come home to find furniture chewed and soiled carpets. Cats, on the other hand, thrive in solitude. As busy life resumes, many will discover they’ve barely got time to feed a goldfish, never mind tend to the needs of a once cute puppy grown into a great big hound.
If you’re too busy to own a pet, there are other options. Pet-sitting for friends or signing up with ‘Borrow My Doggy’ gives you the benefits without the responsibility. The Cinnamon Trust needs volunteer dog walkers and foster homes for pets.
In many ways, pets are as important as family and friends to our wellbeing. We need them as much as they need us for the love and joy they bring.
We’re all susceptible to the joy of pets. Funny cat and dog videos and pictures are popular on social media because they cheer up the dullest or most difficult day. Here’s how pets enhance our lives in many ways:
Increasing physical activity
Walking a dog every day is a fun way to stay healthy.
Pets are an antidote to loneliness, offering love in exchange for time and attention.
The company of a pet can ease anxiety and boost self-confidence. Pets listen and are non judgemental.
Improving social contact
Dog owners are often friendly and stop to chat when out walking. All pets connect their owners through a shared interest or passion, whether it be for alpacas or tortoises.
Creating structure and purpose
Feeding, exercising and caring for a pet creates a daily routine and sense of achievement.
Teaching important life lessons
Childhood pets show us how to take responsibility, be kind and caring and deal with the pain of bereavement.
Bottom four photos: © Lifeontheside/Eva Blanco/Showface/Michelle Milliman/dreamstime.com