As any animal lover will tell you, having a pet can change your life. Our pets (and other animals) not only give us company and comfort (and in some cases, physical assistance), but they also provide less obvious therapeutic benefits as well.
Observing or interacting with animals is good for both our physical and emotional health. For instance, it can increase your immune functioning, lower your heart rate and blood pressure, and decrease your pain. On an emotional level, it can help you to feel less alone, reduce general or social anxiety, and increase your happiness.
Animals can help you personally and in your relationships in many ways, such as offering:
Physical comfort: Anyone who has a pet or cuddled up with a dog or cat knows that this can be comforting. If you are upset, your animal friend often senses this and shows you some extra attention.
Natural connection: In 1984, biologist E.O. Wilson suggested the biophilia hypothesis, which explains that people are naturally attracted to animals and find it relaxing to watch them. Gazing at fish, observing ants as they march to and from their anthill, or even watching the latest silly cat video, can be therapeutic.
Social engagement: For those who struggle with social anxiety or are feeling a strong pull to withdraw, animals can help them stay connected. They are more likely to smile, talk (either to the animals or other people), and to generally be more socially engaged. Just think about when you have talked with people walking their dogs or seen them at a local dog park. By facilitating social engagement, animals offer people the connection they need – even when they don’t want it.
Distraction: Caring for, or playing with, animals can be a wonderful distraction from life’s difficulties. Because engaging with animals can be enjoyable, it can help you to feel calmer. And by regularly spending time with them, you can reduce your anxiety.
Exercise: Some pets have the extra benefit of offering you the opportunity to get exercise. For instance, you can get great exercise walking your dog or tending to your horse (or, I suppose, swimming with your dolphin, if you happen to have one).
There are many ways that animals can enhance your life. If you don’t already have a pet – but would like one – think about your lifestyle and what you would like to get from having one. Then you can choose a more traditional pet, such as a cat or dog, or a less common companion, such as a ferret or turtle. Of course, you also need to consider the temperament of the particular animal.
Or, if you don’t want the responsibility of a pet, there are many others ways that you can include animals in your life. You might foster an animal, volunteer at an animal shelter, or just help a friend or neighbor out with their pet. To help you choose, keep in mind the ways in which having a particular pet or helping with an animal can enhance your life.