Creating and maintaining a strong bond with a pet can be more beneficial to us than we realise. Looking into those puppy eyes or sitting with a kitty on our lap can bring instant calmness. For many people, having a pet is the most natural thing in the world. But what we don’t always realise is that having a strong bond with a pet has many benefits.
Why we do it
Pets are able to give people, and especially their owners, unconditional love; they are not critical and are very forgiving. Cats and dogs don’t ask to be loved back but they love unstintingly – even if they are not treated well.
“In the human realm, this type of love is seldom given and that is why people build special bonds with their pets,” says Dr Louise Olivier, clinical and counselling psychologist.
She encourages people to build special bonds with their pets, as this adds another dimension to the lives of young and old people. “Nobody can play with a human child as boundlessly and without reserve as a pet. Nothing can give as much comfort to a senior citizen as softly caressing a pet.
“I think that it is a disgrace that old-age homes and retirement villages tend not to allow the senior citizen residents to have pets. Only a pet can give silent comfort to a person when they have experienced a trauma – humans are unable to do this in the same way,” says Dr Olivier.
Cultivating a bond doesn’t necessarily come naturally to people – it is a skill that needs to be taught to children, just like any other human interaction.
Children must be taught from a young age to enjoy and respect animals, and also how to realise the value that pets bring to humankind. At the same time, we also need to encourage children to treat animals well, and the most important way to do this is to be a good example to children by treating animals with respect.
“Adults need to teach children about different animals and their needs, and the wonderful function they have in our lives. We should also teach children to treat people and animals in the same way they themselves want to be treated.
“Furthermore, we need to teach them the important lesson that animals can in fact retaliate if they are ill-treated, and they also give much more love and affection when they are treated well,” says Dr Olivier.
Pets could be different animals for different people. While some people easily resonate with a cat or a dog, others don’t have the means or the desire to have a cat or a dog. For some people, a bird or a fish could be the ideal pet to fit into their lifestyle. “I had a wild duck who became a wonderful pet and even my dogs loved him,” says Dr Olivier.
Building a bond with a pet adds another dimension to the life of a human. “It is someone to love, to understand sad times, to have fun with, and to silently be there to comfort you,” explains Dr Olivier. She adds that it also teaches us that, although pets may die, loving them is still worthwhile, regardless of the sadness when they pass.
Dr John Bradshaw, foundation director of the Anthrozoology Institute and honorary research fellow at the University of Bristol, says that dogs are the universal stress-buster. He has conducted various studies, and in one particular study he offered stressed students a puppy play session. “In as little as seven minutes’ interaction with a friendly dog, students reported significantly less anxiety and greater feelings of contentment,” reports Dr Bradshaw.
“It appears that dogs build bridges between people and make their owners seem more trustworthy. These may be the main benefit that dogs provide for veterans of conflict who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other mental health difficulties,” says Dr Bradshaw.
He adds that a dog’s capacity to bring people together may also explain their effectiveness in many kinds of therapy. “The relationship between us and dogs has been in existence for over 10,000 years, and shows no signs of weakening. But it is changing, as the traditional tasks that dogs performed have been supplemented by new roles.
“Getting a dog may not automatically make you healthier but, if you train him well, he will undoubtedly make you happier – and encourage you to make new friends,” says Dr Bradshaw.
Dr Olivier says that the presence of dogs works wonders in adults. “I have had patients who needed to cry, and then they sit on the ground with a dog and cry their hearts out while the dog simply puts his head on the shoulder of the patient while the patient cries. The dog then shows empathy and understanding without having to say a word.” This means that pets not only love us unconditionally, but they can also support and accept us without being judgemental.