Friends with Benefits

In the Spring edition of bp magazine 2015, I found a warm and fuzzy article about how pets have well-documented properties for boosting our well-being.

When pet owners were compared with people who did not own pets in three different studies conducted by psychologists from Miami University in Ohio and St. Louis University, the people with the pets scored higher on self-esteem, were more physically fit, and tended to be less lonely, less fearful and less preoccupied. One experiment found after experiencing rejection, thinking about a pet is as effective as thinking about a human friend in helping someone feel better. Research also shows that the bond between a pet and its owner is as strong as a human and their closest relative.

There is research performed by Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine on how much stress, anxiety and fear is reduced by spending time with therapy dogs. It has been documented both in a health care setting with therapy dogs as well as with pets that blood pressure, heart rate, and cortisol the stress hormone decreases. Dogs are very attuned to nonverbal behavior and therefore responsive to emotional distress, notes Aubrey Fine, PhD, editor of the Hand-book on Animal Assisted Therapy and author of numerous books on the benefits of human-animal ties.

Stephen Goldstein, the program coordinator for People-Animal Connection, a volunteer program based at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles, says that “dogs provide something that medicine cannot.” “There’s scientific evidence that petting, whether a cat or a dog, reduces blood pressure,” he explains.

At the same time a prescription for a pet is not a one size fits all. Not everybody is a dog person or can afford a pet. Maybe there are allergies to consider or other health concerns or housing issues. It depends upon the family’s circumstances and their ability to care for the animal.

The deeper the bond, the more difficult it is to cope with the loss of a pet. Megan Mueller, PhD, a research professor at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University suggests having arrangements in place to commemorate the pet such as planting a tree or writing a poem.

I have two dogs that have been with me nearly ten years. This article resounded with me because my two furry friends are sometimes the best medicine I need when my bipolar rears its ugly head.

Too many days I have wandered around our house with tears streaming down my face. Sam (short for Samantha) our Shepherd-Lab mix comes by my side as if to say it will be okay. She gives me a look that says “why are you crying Momma?” My heart melts at her innocence and her devotion to me and it usually lifts my spirits up. I reach down and pet her and hug her and let her kisses wipe away the tears.

Jake the Dachshund-Beagle mix is my silent friend. When I find myself being swallowed alive by depression and anxiety, I sit on the couch and will stare out the window letting my mind go freely. Jake will come up beside me and affix himself to me to where no light or air can pass between the two of us. His snuggling by my side keeps me connected to reality when my delusional thinking gets out of control.

Jake and Sam make me laugh. They bring tears of joy to my eyes. My heart fills with love. I feel needed. I feel loved when I do not love myself. The benefits of owning a pet are innumerable. It is also a huge responsibility to own a pet. Be sure you understand all that is entailed when owning a pet before picking one out. You could be sorely disappointed.