Pets help people feel loved and secure

BY FRAN VERTUE
Last updated 05:00 21/10/2010
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DECREASING STRESS: Pets help children and adults feel secure and unconditionally loved.

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A growing body of research supports the powerful, positive relationships between humans and their pets.

There is now compelling evidence to suggest that pets help children and adults feel secure and unconditionally loved.

It also seems pets contribute to a child's learning, and an elderly person's ability to carry out daily activities.

The research is really interesting – for example, one study showed the mere presence of a dog during a medical examination decreases a child's stress level.

It has also been shown children exposed to a school-based animal humane education programme showed increased empathy for each other.

So it seems positive interaction with animals, even if it is just one's physical presence with them or an empathetic feeling toward them, seems to benefit children in many ways.

I recently read a research paper written by Professor Froma Walsh at the University of Chicago. She has found that more than 85 per cent of pet owners regard their pets as family members, some according them full family status.

One survey of families who had recently acquired a pet found that 70 per cent reported an increase in family happiness and time spent together after the arrival of their pet.

More than half of people who had a family pet said, if they were stranded on a desert island with only one companion, they would choose to take their family pet.

People report all sorts of reasons for having pets: they provide unconditional love and non-threatening physical contact.

Some people become so attached to their pets that, after a stressful work day or school day, their enthusiastic greeting, affection, and non-judgmental support lead many, on arriving home, to prefer the company of their pets to that of their partner or parent.

There is an increasing number of young adults who choose to raise pets before they become parents (or instead of parenting).

Pets afford them the opportunity to provide nurturance, affection, limit-setting, and concern for another living being.

So, pets can provide something of a "practice-run for parenthood", or can provide the pleasure of caring and raising another being without the more burdensome aspects of parenting.

It is also common to find that parents whose children have left home acquire a new pet (or pets) to fill the emotional and activity void left by departing children.

Pets are particularly valuable for wellbeing in later life. There is lots of evidence to show that elderly people may remain more vital, active and happy when they care for a pet than when they do not. In one family, a daughter reported, "Mum has always been devoted to our pets, but since my Dad's death, they have become her family and her deepest attachments.

She calls them her `tribe' and her `fur folks'." For elderly people with dementia, sitting and stroking a pet can be calming and soothing. This helps them to be part of family interactions and other social occasions without becoming anxious or confused.

Most families report they value their pets most at times of crisis. Pets provide emotional support that makes it easier to cope and recover from stressful events.

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In the middle of a crisis, one's usual supports may be preoccupied or distressed themselves. The bonds people have with their pets offer comfort, affection, and a sense of security at these times.

I have heard from many of the people I have seen since the earthquake that the children, particularly, have turned to their pets for comfort, with the usual rules about where the pet sleeps being relaxed somewhat.

Dr Fran Vertue is a clinical psychologist and part-time university lecturer. For more about her or her work, see christchurchpsychology.co.nz

- The Press

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