Notes from Youville: The Case for Animal Friendships
Humans and animals can comfort each other in sickness and in health.
A few years ago, archeologists dug up a 12,000-year-old human skeleton in Israel. This prehistoric Israelite had been laid to rest with his favorite wolf pup, and the skeleton was found with the hand of the human resting on the head of the dog. This may be the oldest surviving record of our human capacity for affection toward animals.
Twelve millennia later, our propensity to love our pets – whether they are furry, four legged, have gills, beaks, or slither about in a cage – is just as strong as it was in ancient times. What we know today, is that there is a growing body of research that shows that our love for animals is good for us and can even be linked to health benefits.
Pets and Health
Studies show that if you’re preoccupied with caring for your dog or cat, you’re also more likely to be careful about your own health. Pet owners get more exercise and have more opportunities for social interaction as they take their animals out for walks and show them off to admirers. Pets also cause you to release the hormone oxytocin, responsible for feelings of belonging and well-being.
But you don’t have to be a pet owner to profit from the company of animals. Across the country, “volunteer” animals pay visits to assisted living residences, hospitals, nursing homes, and other venues providing companionship, and in many cases aid in patients recovery. Children undergoing painful procedures or recovering from an illness brighten up when dogs enter the room. This improvement of morale directly supportstheir recovery process. One Labrador retriever in New York has even worked for the Staten Island District Attorney comforting crime victims as they testify in court.
At Youville House and Youville Place, residents enjoy weekly visits from volunteer dogs thanks to Caring Canines, a Boston non-profit group. Residents meet with the dogs and their owners for an hour, enjoying refreshments and socializing. The animals provide social contact without the pressure of having to hold a conversation. This is partly what makes them such soothing companions. It also gives residents a great excuse to get together and socialize with one another.
Pets in the Workplace
Office pets are becoming increasingly more common, and studies have found that bringing pets to work reduces stress and can even improve productivity. One group of researchers from Virginia Commonwealth University studied a manufacturing company where employees brought pets to work. The researchers took samples of each employee’s saliva to measure the amount of stress hormone released throughout the day. The stress levels were found to be higher later in the day for employees who did not have pets with them, and consistently lower for those employees who had brought their pets. The study went on to say that on the whole, employees of this particular company had a higher than usual level of satisfaction with their job compared to the average company in their industry.
Not Your Average Pets
These days, dogs no longer have a monopoly on the therapy animal sector. Therapy animals come in a wide variety of species and serve many different purposes. Miniature horses are becoming guide animals for the blind. Their consideration, intelligence and situational awareness, make them perfect companions for people with vision impairment. Macaque monkeys are being used to help people with agoraphobia go out in public, shop, drive and talk to others without having panic attacks.
Some time ago NPR aired a piece on a man named Jim and his grey African parrot Sadie. Before owning Sadie, Jim suffered from uncontrollable fits of rage, a symptom of his bipolar disorder. Nothing seemed to be able to relieve his episodes, and he had multiple run-ins with the law related to aggressive physical behaviors.
That all changed when Jim accepted Sadie from a friend and agreed to nurse her back to health (she’d suffered maltreatment at the hands of her previous owner). One day, just as Jim was starting to lose his temper, Sadie spoke: “Calm down, Jim. It’s okay, Jim. I’m here, Jim.” Amazingly, Jim’s rage receded and he was able to regain control of himself.
The process repeated itself, and now Jim keeps Sadie with him at all times. Whenever he starts to lose his cool, Sadie somehow senses it and tells him, “Settle down, Jim. It’s okay, Jim.” While Sadie probably doesn’t understand the meaning of the words, it’s clear that she understands how they work. In her mind, she and Jim are members of a flock, and Sadie must do whatever she can to keep her flock partner safe so that he can keep her safe.
While Jim and Sadie’s relationship may not represent those between all humans and pets, it does demonstrate how humans and animals can support each other, and how animals can offer humans a way to improve their health and well being.