Commentary: A pet a day keeps the doctor away

Pets can be used to help so many people with social, mental, emotional, and even physical issues.

In this April 4, 2018, photo, Boston Marathon bombing survivor Marc Fucarile pats his dog Onyx at his home in Reading, Massachusetts. The 39-year-old from the Boston area lost his right leg in the blast, and his badly maimed left leg causes him unceasing pain. He fears another amputation might be his only option. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

A dog running up to you with unconditional love brings happiness to almost any dreary day. A snuggling cat’s weight, warmth and purring can comfort and wash away stresses and worries. As an example of less mainstream pets, even watching a tank of fish is oddly soothing and therapeutic. Animals can brighten sadness and heal wounds.

As a touching example, Jaclyn Lathrop was experiencing chest pain, numbness and dizzy spells after she graduated college. When she consulted doctors, she was told that the symptoms were because of strong anxiety attacks, and she was given medication to stop the attacks. However, it was her new dog, Bentley, and not her medication, that saved her. Because of Bentley, she has managed to move past her anxiety and continue moving forward in her life (“How My Pet Helped Me Heal”).

Other touching examples include a fiery Arabian stallion who helped his rider fight through depression, and a young man suffering from mental problems after a car accident who is instantly calmed by petting his cuddly cat.

My dog and two cats are integral parts of my life. Going on a walk with my dog helps me think through my problems, stresses and worries, and cuddling with a purring, sleepy cat makes them seem less threatening. Every time I see friendly animals, I can’t help but relax and respond with enthusiasm.

Pets can do much more than provide simple companionship. Pets that need constant physical activity to stay healthy, like dogs and horses, can facilitate an increase of physical activity in their owners. After all, if you care about your dog, you will probably take it on a walk every day or so. In a literature review from the University of Western Australia, researchers found a strong positive correlation between dog owners and their exercise levels. You can experience this for yourself; people who go on frequent walks, especially in bad weather, are usually taking a dog.

Even beyond dogs or horses, pets can have beneficial effects on the health of their owners. Researchers from the Melbourne University and the German Institute of Economic Research reviewed surveys done by Australia and Germany of their citizens. The surveys of both countries showed the citizens who owned pets, including pets other than dogs, had better health and needed fewer doctor visits than citizens who didn’t own pets or no longer owned any. Truly, a pet a day keeps the doctor away. This improvement could be due to exercise in dog owners, and another possibility is that pets can provide social support. It is well-known that people with better social health also have better physical health.

Furthermore, pets can indeed provide that social support, in addition to improving mental and emotional well-being. It makes my day brighter when I visit my parents’ house and our golden retriever Loki runs to me like I’ve been gone forever, with barely contained excitement.

There is true evidence as well. Psychology researchers from Miami University and Saint Louis University conducted several experiments testing the level of support a pet can provide. They found that pets, from dogs to goats, can improve social support, improve interpersonal relationships, increase self-esteem, decrease loneliness, and alleviate social rejection. These benefits apply to most people, not just the lonely or socially awkward.

These studies show evidence that pets can help people in more ways than most people think. Pets can be used to help so many people with social, mental, emotional, and even physical issues. However, while there is evidence, there is not enough to truly understand how exactly pets help us. Pets are such an integral part of many people’s lives, but not everyone understands that. There is not enough research. Most of the research is on a small scale and can’t look deep enough into the issue to completely understand the way pets affect humans.

Governments and medical organizations need to sit up and take notice of this growing idea and facilitate that research and understanding. There are many whose lives could be improved by animal companionship.

McKenna Harris

McKenna Harris is a student at Weber State University.