Up close view of a goldfish

Recently, James Wathen, a 73-year-old Kentucky man, lay in his hospital bed at death’s door. He had stopped eating and given up. But when nurses reunited him with his one-eyed Chihuahua, Bubba, Wathen rebounded, according to a report on Today.

This heartwarming story is an example of the undeniable power of the bond between people and their dogs. But the benefits of having animals in your life isn’t only limited to owning dogs. A new survey by the Human Animal Bond Research Initiative found that 97 percent of 1,000 family doctors and practitioners surveyed said that they believed there were health benefits in owning pets in general. 75 percent of physicians said they saw one or more of their patients’ overall health improve, and 87 percent said their patients’ mood or outlook improved.

“When you pet a dog, there’s an oxytocin [or ‘the bonding hormone’] release,” explains Alan Beck, professor and director at Purdue University’s Center for the Human-Animal Bond in Indiana. “But different companion animals help in different ways, depending on our interests, needs and lifestyles. That’s why you have bird people, fish people, cat people. There’s a lot of evidence that pet interaction in general has very positive health benefits.”

Sandra Barker, Ph.D., NCC, LPC, professor of psychiatry and director of the School of Medicine Center for Human-Animal Interaction at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond adds, “There are pockets of research [that support the health benefits of pet ownership] in terms of reducing stress, depression and loneliness, but also cardiovascular benefits in terms of reduced blood pressure, heart rate variability and reduced cortisol.”

Why We Seek Out Animals

“The culture almost trains us to like animals,” Beck says. “Seventy-five percent of children’s literature features animal characters.” But he posits that our attachment is linked to base instincts and that nature is at the core of the animal-human bond. “The humans who were selected for continuing survival were those who appreciated nature and could pay attention to details: which animals you could interact with safely. In the 1980s, studies found that, for instance, surgery patients recovered faster if they had park views. So we unconsciously bring nature into our lives on demand with things like bird feeders, gardens and animal ownership.”

But “social support theory” (the scientific belief that we get emotional comfort from our animals) also plays a role. “Pets provide nonjudgmental emotional support,” Barker explains. “It’s not just about having a pet. It has to do with the relationship that a person has with a pet: What does that animal symbolize? Companionship? Security? Protection? A reason to get up in the morning?”

Back in 1987, the National Institutes of Health officially acknowledged that there are behavioral and physiological benefits to the relationships between animals and humans. Various treatment programs have been developed based on that concept ever since. “Pet therapy is really just taking the benefits of pet ownership and applying them in settings that might be helpful,” Beck explains. “If you’re alone in a nursing home, that bond is particularly useful. Animals can ease social interaction and be trusted confidantes.”

What’s more, taking responsibility for another creature can prove beneficial. For example, Gail Melson, Ph.D., professor emerita of developmental studies at Purdue University, suggests that nurturing a pet (walking a dog or feeding a cat or fish) can be an important lesson in caregiving for children, especially young boys who might otherwise consider caregiving “girl stuff.” But it isn’t just good for children. Says Beck, “We never outgrow our nurturing behaviors. Pets allow us to be caregivers again.” And feeling needed or capable builds confidence.

Horses Help Physically and Emotionally

One of the more important non-dog-related animal-assisted therapy options, according to Beck, is therapeutic horseback riding. We’re not all lucky enough to have our own horses as pets, but — for those who do or even those who have the chance to ride regularly — benefits vary, from increased confidence to improved range of motion.

Girl petting a guinea pig

Historically, horseback riding was used as a sort of occupational therapy for conditions like polio, cerebral palsy and spina bifida. But scientists now believe it offers psychological benefits. “Some insurance will actually cover horseback riding therapy,” Beck says. “The benefits include increased motivation and self-esteem and also better interaction for people who are very shy or even on the [autistic] spectrum. Animals can be amazing motivators.”

Fish and Birds Offer Soothing Focus

It’s not easy to hug fish, but it’s worth spending time with them: Even a goldfish in a simple tank can help relieve stress.

For example, in a study by Beck, when phobic dental patients were exposed to fish tanks before treatment, they experienced benefits, he explains, as did psychiatric patients who were exposed to caged finches in another study. Later studies also showed benefits for Alzheimer’s patients, from increased relaxation to improved appetite.

“One of the many roles we play for each other is to be a focus of attention,” Beck says. “If something can hold our attention in the present, it is in itself helpful because it reduces stress. In those moments, we’re not worrying about the past or the future. Fish have varied enough movement to hold our attention, but they aren’t outlandish enough to be really stimulating or frightening. We find comfort in that.”

These findings have inspired many nursing homes to install aquariums or, in some cases, aviaries. The reason, according to Beck: Watching nature unfold is more riveting than watching, say, a lava lamp, for aging patients whose minds might otherwise wander.

Even Guinea Pigs Ease Anxiety

In a now famous and oft quoted 2013 study helmed by Marguerite E. O’Haire at the School of Psychology at The University of Queensland in Australia, when children with autism spectrum disorder and typically developing peers were given guinea pigs to play with, they exhibited significantly increased positive social behaviors compared to the control group. “A challenge facing elementary school teachers is how to mainstream spectrum children,” Beck says. “They don’t play very well together. But the guinea pigs, which are relatively safe and easy to handle, helped them make eye contact and facilitated positive interaction.”

What’s more, Barker adds, “They found a significant reduction in anxiety and physiological arousal. That’s very important.”

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