The proverb “Home is where the heart is” is taking on a new twist for the growing number of people who welcome animal companions into their lives. And according to new studies, people who believe that “home is where the pet is” canreap numerous benefits from opening their hearts and homes.
“A growing body of evidence shows that [relating to animals] can be very beneficial for us, even though we have to recognize that not all relationships are always positive,” says clinical veterinarian, animal welfare advocate and pet parent David Haworth.
“For me, it comes down to unconditional love. When we have a sentient being loving us and supporting us in various ways, that is a very powerfully positive thing.”
Haworth is not alone in his appreciation of animal companionship. Approximately 41 per cent of Canadian households include at least one dog, and 37 per cent have at least one cat, and their numbers have increased by about 10 per cent over the last decade, according to a nationwide Kynetec survey.
As pets continue to migrate from the backyard to living rooms and bedrooms, science is shedding light on their contributions to human – and societal – well-being.
Data shows that widows and widowers, for example, have an extended life expectancy when they have a pet.
“These are often people who live alone and don’t have immediate family,” says Haworth. “It’s hard to lie in bed all day if you have a dog’s nose nudging you or a cat who is insistently meowing.”
Other studies show that children on the autism spectrum and people living with post-traumatic stress disorder show improved outcomes with animal-assisted therapy, Haworth adds. “When you have a [four-legged] partner you can trust and who supports you unconditionally, that can be a very powerful medicine.”
The benefits of pet ownership can also go beyond emotional and physiological aspects, says Haworth, who cites a University of Missouri study examining how dogs can help us lose weight.
“The study focused on people who needed to lose weight for health reasons after experiencing a cardiac event,” he explains. Study participants were divided into three groups: the first received a daily email or text message reminder to go for a walk. People in the second group were paired with a [human] walking buddy. Members of the third group were encouraged to pick up a four legged exercise companion at the local animal shelter.
“The group walking the dogs was the most consistent and successful in losing weight,” says Haworth. “Interestingly enough, the second group fared the worst as it turned out that human exercise partners often talked each other out of going for the walk, whereas the dogs were always eager, so people didn’t want to disappoint them.”
Looking at broader societal trends in human-pet relationships, Haworth compares two examples of how dogs are portrayed: Snoopy, Charlie Brown’s dog in the Peanuts comic strip, and Brian Griffin, the big white dog in the animated sitcom The Family Guy. While Snoopy lives in a doghouse and doesn’t talk, Brian speaks multiple languages and loves opera and jazz – he might even be the smartest member of the family.
“When I worked in a veterinary practice in Spokane, Washington, I could see someone in the morning, who would ask me to do anything in my power to help their beloved pet,” recalls Haworth. “And in the afternoon, I could deal with someone who’d say, ‘I don’t really like the dog, but I was told to get her a rabies vaccination, so that’s all I need.’”
Haworth believes the “morning client” is part of a growing group, while those who believe that a pet isn’t worth very much are in the minority in North America. The vast majority of pet owners consider their animal companions part of the family, says Haworth, who is also the president of PetSmart Charities Canada, a non-profit organization with a mission to find lifelong, loving homes for all pets by supporting programs and thought leadership that bring people and pets together.
While pet lovers don’t need convincing that their animal companions have a positive impact on human lives, Haworth believes scientific evidence can help us to leverage the power of human-animal companionships for enhancing not only personal but societal well-being, and inform public policy. “At PetSmart Charities, we sponsor analyses that measure the economic impact of pet-friendly policies. I’m very interested in seeing more data that shows that putting a dog park downtown is a net positive for the community, for example.”
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