top of page
  • Writer's pictureDr. Watts

For the Love of Pets - What Pets Do for You

Updated: Jan 28


The desire for a pet is a deep one, not just for most children, but for adults as well.  I hear countless tales of beloved childhood pets,  pets long gone that are still missed, emotional support pets, current family pets, pet antics and mischief, pet woes and pet heartbreak.  And when I say “pets,” I don’t just mean dogs, but animals of all kinds that we develop attachments to: cats, mice, birds, hamsters, snakes, frogs, gerbils, fish, horses.  A child I worked with who was dealing with anxiety loved to tell me stories about his bunny, and whenever he did, his face lit up, his worries melted away.  Play therapy is an essential “tool” for a child psychologist, so we integrated stories about bunnies into our play: the bunny being brave, making friends, coping with anxiety and fears.  His beloved bunny gave us a pathway to health.


Almost 90 million homes in the US, that’s 66%, have a pet, according to statistics for this year.  Dogs are most popular, followed by cats and fresh water fish.  Collectively, pet owners spend almost $137 billion on pet items and pet care (Forbes Advisor). That’s a lot of money!  These statistics are not surprising - it is amazing how many dogs, more and more every year, I see on walks when I am out with my own dogs.  Nor is it surprising when I go into a pet store to see countless choices for pet clothing, jewelry, fruit scented body sprays, dog nail polish, toys, brain games, special treats.  I even saw on Instagram groomers who dye a dog’s coat: you bring in your tan colored golden doodle and take home a tiger striped or a leopard spotted golden doodle.  Clearly, when it comes to people's feelings, pets, especially dogs, are not just animals; they are family members and beloved companions that we love to treat and spoil.  In fact, they are more like children than animals.



But why are pets such a big deal?  What do they do for us? Plenty, it turns out.


Interacting with pets has beneficial effects at a basic physiological level by decreasing stress hormones, such as cortisol, and increasing levels of serotonin and oxytocin, the bonding hormone.  Petting appears to be especially powerful in affecting these hormones.  Petting a cat that is purring has healing and calming benefits.  It lowers the heart rate and decreases blood pressure. Furriness seems to be conducive to these physiological changes by encouraging a tactile interaction with the animal.  As you pet your furry friend, you are more likely to be mindfully present in that experience.  You are more likely to have positive thoughts about love and gratitude and to feel a sense of happiness and bonding. (Click here to read about mindfulness and petting your dog or other pet.)   


Petting your furry friend is not a passive experience. It is an active interaction with another sentient being that is likely to reciprocate with licks or purrs or snuggles or meows or bounding joyfulness. The engagement is a two way road - you show attention and they respond in a reciprocal manner of engagement, and this interaction creates feelings of well-being, belonging, affection, and attachment.  Loving them makes us feel good.


I was taking a  behavior class recently with my young dog Maya.  One of  the instructors indicated that dog owners must avoid “free love,” which is showing unearned affection and attention - the dog has to do a required behavior in order to receive reinforcement or attention.  No free pets or scratches or “who’s a good boy! “comments. They all must be earned. I didn’t agree with that approach.  I guess I am a “free love” kind  of person.  I will give hugs and pets and scratches just because they are cute or have a dopey expression or do something funny.  But don’t get me wrong - it is not a free-for-all, anything-goes household.  If I say “sit!” you sit; no messing around.


But I digress...


Pets have been shown to provide great benefits for nursing home residents.  The animals provide relief from loneliness and boredom; they provide comfort and entertainment; they encourage story telling about bygone days of their own pets and life.  My dog Stella and I visit nursing homes regularly. One resident used to tell me a story of lying in the grass one night when she was 8 years old with her dog by her side trying to count the stars.  It was the first time that she had noticed how many stars there were and she was in awe, probably scared of how little she was and how big the sky.  She said she was happy that her dog was by her side because she felt safe and not alone.  She told me this story every time we visited until she lost her power to speak as the dementia took more and more of her mind and memories.  These days she tells me things that I do not understand, but I can often make out  the words “dogs” and “love.”  Eighty years later, the words dogs and love are fused in her soul, and when she sees Stella she smiles with a big happy smile.



Pets can decrease stress by giving us something else to focus on.  When we are under stress, the brain structures that trigger the fight-or-flight system in our body take over, essentially hijacking our brain, making it hard to focus on anything else besides the thing that is causing us stress.  Pets help us break the  hold of the hijack because they need our attention. They need food and walks and water and all kinds of basic care.  They help us shift our focus from some anxious thought about some unknown future to the immediate reality of taking care of a being dependent on us completely.  The more we can disengage from anxiety, the less hold it can have on us.  One client described how he likes to care for his turtles whenever he feels stressed after work. The task of cleaning their cages and feeding and watering them are absorbing tasks that calm and relax him. Another talked about how she loved taking care of her horse. When she was with her horse, everything else faded into the background - it was just her and the horse and the bond between them.


Pets bring richness into our lives, but they also bring challenges.  All pets require ongoing investment of time, money, resources, commitment. They are not stuffed animals. Even the easiest pet requires extensive care.  At one point, I fancied setting up a vivarium full of poison dart frogs.  Though they are poisonous in the wild, they are safe in an aquarium setting, so I thought they would be beautiful to look at.  The first website I clicked on said that “they are hardy and ideal for beginners” and “they come in a wide array of colors.” Sounded good to me, but fortunately I decided to do a little more research and discovered that poison dart frogs were not for me. Though they may be hardy, their environment has to be closely monitored and controlled.  Humidity, light, temperature, water quality, plant life in the vivariium, food, everything has to be in the right range to keep the little guys healthy. And so it is with all pets.


Some pets are less sensitive to environmental factors, such as light and humidity, but have other requirements that are just as exacting.  Not all dog breeds are for all people, for example. Understanding breed requirements can save you and the dog a lot of pain and suffering. Dogs also have to be raised and socialized so that they can live with us and us with them in an amicable and sustainable manner. My dog, Stella, for example, had extensive training in group classes. But, she was a force of nature as a puppy and young dog and that was not enough to get her under control. She also had private training with my friend Kerry who is an animal whisperer. She has raised dogs and cats and ducks and horses, and I am convinced that she can speak to animals in their own language. Her blog is full of wisdom about living with dogs (darwindogs.org).


Ultimately, a dog or poison dart frogs or any animal is not for everybody, but if you want to have a pet know your lifestyle and know what the pet needs so that you can have a long and happy life together.





“What is man without the beasts? If all the beasts were gone, man would die from a great loneliness of spirit. For whatever happens to the beasts, soon happens to man. All things are connected”. – Chief Seattle




Dr. Dana Watts

Clinical Psychologist

Helping Clients in the Greater Cleveland Area


440-895-1100

Comments


bottom of page