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Pets provide companionship - one of the obvious benefits for their owners. But they also provide far more, as shown by research and scientific studies. As more information becomes available, it can be seen that the human companion animal bond plays a considerable practical and psychological part in today's high-pressure society.
For many people, life without a pet would be unthinkable. Pets provide companionship, affection and protection. They can become playmates and partners, with unique bonds being formed between humans and the animals, which become essential parts of their lives. In today's high-pressure society the presence of pets helps many humans cope with increasing stress and anxiety.
The pet, in fact, plays a key role in every stage of human development. For the child, a pet animal encourages a sense of responsibility, caring and communication. The relationship instils confidence and friendship - qualities, which can endure and grow as the child moves on through life.
For adults, the pet takes on new roles - providing companionship for those living alone; giving stimulation to make contact with others as in, for instance, an owner walking his dog; and a sense of purpose for the elderly who, with restricted human communication, can give their pet their love and care.
For some, the presence of a pet has even more meaning. With training, pets can help their owners to lead a more normal life, as with the case of guide dogs for the blind. Animals are also being trained to help deaf people to identify and react to signals they cannot normally perceive. And, of course, many pets also serve an additional role as protectors or deterrents against intruders.
Assistance animals also fulfil many other invaluable roles, including working as sheep and cattle dogs, as sniffer dogs used for detection of drugs, tracker dogs, mountain, sea and avalanche rescue animals, and police dogs. It is interesting to talk to the handlers of working animals and to learn that they are still regarded as pets, which have simply been trained for specific purposes.
One more unusual use for companion animals is in prisons where pets have been carefully introduced. Staff and inmates alike reap benefits aiding the rehabilitation process.
These qualities and others are increasingly recognised in scientific studies into the relationship between humans and their pets. The coexistence and cohabitation of humans and pets has become an area of investigation in which a growing number of psychologists, scientists, veterinary surgeons and doctors around the world have become interested. In turn, this has led to a wealth of information becoming available.
It has been learned, for example, that the presence of a pet can lead to a reduction in stress, a decrease in blood pressure and the lowering of anxiety levels. Scientific studies have shown that the chances of recovery among pet owning heart patients are higher than among non owners.
Similarly, the benefits for dog owners include improved health through regular exercise. In providing exercise for their dogs, the owners are encouraged into physical activity themselves.
The contribution pets make to society, therefore, goes far beyond the obvious role of companionship. And, in return for the impartial generosity and unbounding affection offered by so many pets, their owners increasingly recognise the need to provide proper care. Above all, perhaps, to ensure their pets receive a properly prepared diet.
Companion animals have been part of our lives for most of recorded history and are not just a twentieth century phenomenon. It is not known whether primitive man started first to herd animals for food and campfire scavenging dogs were trained to help, or whether dogs became a part of man's lifestyle even earlier. It is thought likely that the cat's excellence as a rodent catcher in grain stores was exploited by the ancient Egyptians. The question remains, however, did the cat view the human as a superior hunter and simply become domesticated in return for free food?
There are countless historical representations of pets as part of our daily lives. Think of the chivalric knight's tomb with his dog at his feet as a symbol of fidelity, or the magnificent medieval manuscripts with lively dogs, cats and birds tumbling from the margins. Throughout the ages, portraits of royalty have depicted Kings and Queens with their favourite pets.
The ship's cat on Captain Scott's expedition to the South Pole in 1912 was the first of his species to land and overwinter in Antartica. It had its own blanket, hammock and pillow.
No matter how it first developed, one thing is certain: the powerful bond between people and pet animals is entirely mutually beneficial. Simply to watch a child playing with a pet dog or cat, or an elderly person enjoying the companionship of an animal underlines the mutual benefits and interdependence of the relationship. As is increasingly being recognised, the composite mutual benefits of pet ownership far exceed companionship alone. Indeed, the relationship between humans and animals is far deeper and more rewarding than even pet owners themselves are aware.
Pet animals are used for therapeutic reasons in hospitals and nursing homes where the benefits are increasingly being recognised. Patients have something to look forward to and talk about after a pet visit. Although some of these values have been surmised since the eighteenth century, the use of animals in hospital wards is not yet common in Europe. In the United States, more than half of all nursing homes, clinics and hospitals use animals in a therapeutic capacity. Perhaps of all these positive effects on the well-being of a human patient, the most dramatic is that of a dog or a cat in the non- communicative clinically depressed patient whose withdrawal can be gently alleviated by the introduction of the pet. Such practices and their psychological benefits have received endorsement from the medical profession.
Tests have revealed that stroking dogs and cats can lower the blood pressure and heart rate of the human. This may be related to the simple fact that caring for certain pets introduces added responsibilities, such as having to go out to exercise a dog, shopping and generally leading a more active life. Pet owners have often confessed that it is the dog, which makes them exercise. Walking the dog also leads to many conversations and social interactions that might otherwise not have taken place.
As part of a wider role, FEDIAF members fully support research into the human companion animal bond. One of the most important international conference on human-animal interactions took place in Prague in September 1998. It was the first of its kind to be held in Central/Eastern Europe.
Some of the scientific research in this area, presented to over 800 delegates at the Eighth International Conference on Human Animal Interactions, included for example:
June McNicholas from University of Warwick, Coventry, UK, who found out that at three months after the bereavement of their partner, pet owners showed fewer physical symptoms, such as crying, than non-owners. Owners often confided in their pets to help release painful feelings at times when sharing these feelings with other people was felt to be socially uncomfortable. Ref June McNicholas, "Pets as providers of social support: Evidence from a longitudinal study of spousal bereavement"
Dr Karen Allen from the University of New York in Buffalo found that men who own cats or dogs had lower resting heart and blood pressure than non-pet owning males. This indicates that the benefits of pet ownership spread beyond the life shared with the animal, but bring improvements to all aspects of the owner's life. Ref. Karen Allen: The healthy pleasure of their company. Roles of animals in enhancing human health and quality of life"