Why pets are so healthy for us The benefits of having a pet
Now that we are often at home because of the corona, more and more people are taking a dog or a cat; against boredom and to dispel loneliness. Does having a pet actually make you happier? Marie-José Enders-Slegers, professor by special appointment of anthrozoology, explains.
The pets have not been dragged on since the start of the corona crisis, sector organization Dibevo and the Dutch Association of Wholesalers concluded in their annual pet population survey. Dogs and cats, in particular, have led to an increasing trend: almost one in four households now own a cat, and one in five has a dog. The total number of companion animals, in addition to dogs and cats, also fish, birds, and other animals – in our country is no less than 27 million. Marie-José Enders-Slegers, emeritus professor of anthropology at the Open University, is not surprised. “Especially as you get older, having a pet can fill in gaps in your social network,” she says. “After you retire, you will no longer have colleagues, and more and more friends and relatives will leave.
Enders-Slegers should know. She has been researching the relationship between humans and animals and its influence on psychological health for years. “Caring for an animal gives meaning to your life and rhythm to your days,” she says. “That gives a pleasant and safe feeling, and distracts from the physical ailments and other worries that come with aging.”
The advantage of having a pet is that you will naturally move more. A cat expects a clean bowl and playtime every now and then, a goldfish clear water to swim in, and a dog needs to get out three to four times a day. Especially the more active breeds, such as border collies, shepherds, and labradors, do like a brisk walk. You can count on that you will get your daily number of steps. As a bonus, walking the dog often results in new contacts. For example, the owner of that funny dachshund from the park, or the neighbor from a few blocks away with her posh poodle.
All these factors contribute to health and quality of life, according to various international studies. Decades ago, scientists from the University of Maryland in the United States established that after a heart attack, older people with a pet have on average a higher life expectancy than older people with the same condition, but without a pet.
Stroking has a positive effect on your blood pressure and heart rate
In recent years, more studies have been done on the direct physical effects of owning a pet. “If you have a close bond, it affects your hormone balance. During the interaction, for example, when petting, oxytocin is released – also known as the ‘cuddle hormone’ – and the concentration of the stress hormone cortisol in your blood goes down. That has a positive effect on your blood pressure and heart rate,” says Enders-Slegers.
For people with mental or physical conditions, pets can make a huge difference. Think, for example, of guide dogs that help their owner with shopping, or dogs that warn people with diabetes about too high or too low glucose levels in their blood.
Animal therapy can also be valuable. One of Enders-Slegers’ Ph.D. students is researching interventions with dogs in adults with autism, another is investigating the added value of visiting animals for dementia patients in nursing homes. The results are beautiful. “We see, for example, that after a few sessions with a dog, people with autism start to communicate better and experience less stress,” the professor by special appointment illustrates. “In another study, we concluded that after introducing two cats to the ward of their nursing home, elderly people with dementia became more alert and relaxed. says Enders-Slegers: “An animal does not judge, but reacts to your behavior, making you aware of things.
You really have to be an animal lover to experience the positive effects of a pet, emphasizes the professor: “They are not instruments where you just press a button to feel better.” A pet also costs time, money, and energy. “You have to take it to the vet, and arrange a babysitter if you’re not there for a day. You have to be physically and mentally capable of that.” That is also the reason why the professor by special appointment is not in favor of ‘dementia dogs’, dogs that have been trained to walk around the block with their owner with dementia.
“I don’t believe that such a dog, however, trained, is capable of safely guiding a patient with dementia through life. In addition, it is very difficult for people with dementia to follow a pet care schedule,” she emphasizes. “You can only take a dog into your home if there is a partner who takes care of it.” So think carefully before you take an animal from a nest or from the shelter. “Only opt for a pet if you can guarantee it a good life,” emphasizes the professor by special appointment. And if you are considering therapy that is supported by an animal, be well informed.”
This is how you find a good animal aid
Since 2020, there has been an independent Animal Assisted Interventions Quality Register (AKR) in the Netherlands where, for example, psychologists, physiotherapists, coaches, youth care workers, teachers, doctors, and speech therapists who work with animals are registered: www.aairegister.nl. “Here you will find professionals who, in addition to vocational training at a higher professional or academic level, have received training about animal welfare and behavior and how to work with them,” says Enders-Slegers. “You are then assured of a therapist who treats you and the animal professionally.”