If you are a passionate pet-owner, you probably already know what pets can do for you, and you may also know that there is some science behind your beliefs. There is. But maybe you don’t know about another benefit of having pets, that has been demonstrated scientifically in several countries, but has gotten far less attention.
John Bradshaw, the author of the new book, The Animals Among Us: How Pets Make Us Human, had a fascinating conversation with a Washington Post reporter in which he discussed what is known and not known about pets, and so much more.
First, let’s start with what you do know. Pets, you have probably heard, are good for you. In some ways, that’s true. Bradshaw notes that:
“…stroking a dog or a cat causes hormones to be released and makes the person doing it feel good.”
In another example, he adds:
“If the dog gets people out and about and likes energetic exercise, then there are probably health benefits.”
But he also thinks the claims about the health benefits of pets are exaggerated. The studies with encouraging findings get the most press, but there are other studies, too, often buried in medical journals. Those studies show that pets can also be expensive and cause stress. (Those two possibilities – expenses and stress – are probably related, at least for people who are not wealthy.) And, Bradshaw claims, sometimes the cutest pets are the ones most prone to health problems.
So what is it that is really good about pets, that has been demonstrated in several countries, and that you might not already know? I’ll let Bradshaw explain:
“People with animals, or as simply described as having a friendly dog with them, instantly become more trustworthy in the eyes of the person who’s encountering that person or having that person described to them…I think it also explains a lot of the effects of animal-assisted therapy. The magic is actually in making the person with the animal much more approachable. In a senior residence, it’s not simply the seniors who find the visitor a good person to talk to, but the staff finds the visits beneficial as well… The dog, or whatever animal, is changing people’s perception of the person doing the therapy. This is the trustworthiness factor…”
So there you have it: If you are hanging out in public with your pet, or even if people just know that you have a pet, you are seen as more trustworthy. That’s no small thing.
I think there’s something else potentially beneficial about having a pet that is not mentioned in the interview (though maybe it is in the book – I haven’t gotten it yet). If you have, say, a dog that you take out for walks regularly, your dog can be a sort of magical ice-breaker. People walk up to your dog, maybe pet her or him, and strike up a conversation with you. If this happens repeatedly on the same route with the same people, then, voila! – maybe you have some new friends. Or at least some people who are no longer just strangers. That’s no small thing, either.