THE BLOG

Pet Therapy, and Why Dogs Are Tops

20/10/2014 15:02 BST | Updated 20/12/2014 10:59 GMT

There was a lovely story in the media a few days ago - an old man in a Kentucky hospital, who was very unwell and whose condition was deteriorating, was reunited with his tiny, one-eyed Chihuahua dog - and Bingo, he was healed! The dog, who had been in a rescue centre and who was also pining away, was brought to his owner's hospital bed and both parties perked up and immediately began to recover their health. It was a heart-warming read, and I am sure I saw tears in my husband's eyes as we watched the video that accompanied it - although he denied it, of course.

In any case, the story chimed with my own personal experience. A few years ago I had an operation to remove bunions on both my feet (I know, glamourous...) and when I came round after the operation I found myself longing for my own little dog, Coco the black and tan King Charles Cavalier. Paul duly came to visit later that afternoon with our children, who climbed all over the bed, ate the grapes and the packet of chicken and thyme crisps they had bought for me, hugged me enthusiastically and then noisily departed. I was pleased and proud to see them all at my bedside, but exhausted by the time they went.

And I was still yearning for my dog. This surprised me. I am not usually the sort of person who prefers canine company to that of her husband and children. But just now I felt instinctively that I needed Coco. She would have climbed onto the bed, peacefully settled down near me. My warm, cuddly teddy bear would have comforted me silently and in turn she would have been soothed by my presence.

It has been scientifically proven that there are many ways in which owning pets can improve your health. The sound and vibration of a cat purring has recently been proven to cure headaches, and has even been claimed to heal certain brain disorders. Stroking an animal certainly lifts your mood. Even watching fish swim around a tank can lower cortisol levels in the blood and increase levels of serotonin - in other words, pets have a stress-busting effect.

Owning a pet can, and does, also lower blood pressure and cholesterol and boost immunity. Pet owners have a lower risk of dying from any cardiac disease, including heart failure. Owning a pet can even improve your social life, allegedly. And I can see how this could work - although personally I prefer my own company when I am out walking my dogs because this gives me space and time to think and relax, I do nod and smile to other dog owners, which makes me feel as though the world is generally a friendlier place.

There are downsides to owning a pet, of course. They are potentially costly and time-consuming and you should think carefully before committing to owning any animal - particularly dogs, which need a lot of care and company. If you go out to work all day and don't know anyone who is prepared to look after your animal when you go on holiday, then owning a dog is probably not for you. However, there is a new business (or community, as they term themselves) in the UK called Borrow my Doggy which might go a long way towards solving this problem. It matches up dog owners with people who want a dog to walk or for occasional company and is obviously filling a need, because although it was launched less than two years ago, it already boasts thousands of members.

As for me, I recovered well from my operation and was reunited with my little dog at home within a couple of days. As I write this, Coco is sleeping on the mat near my feet, with her puppy, Trio, who is now a year old. The three of us have just been out for a long walk, tramping over damp fields in the warm autumn sunshine and watching them sleep it off now is almost as relaxing as having a doze myself. Having a litter of pups is a whole other story, something that families rarely do nowadays for many reasons. It's not for the faint-hearted, but it was a really positive experience for all concerned.

In my opinion, out of all the possible pets you could have, dogs are the best. There is nothing like a dog for the giving and receiving of unconditional love. I feel so honoured and grateful to have the presence of these animals in my life and I know that owning a dog has made me a better person. It scores very high on the Smug Mummy/Daddy rating chart too, chiefly because your children learn to love the dog and help to care for it which teaches them responsibility and nurturing skills (but be aware that you, the adults, will do all the muddy, cold and wet routine walks, the children will join you for the short, fun, sunny ones if you are lucky).

I am convinced that dogs are the best pets, but I'm biased really, and I know it. I realise cats are good too. In fact, there is a pet out there for every person I am sure (although I never wish to own a reptile I know that there are people for whom these make the perfect pets). Which is not to say that everyone should own a pet - looking after another living being is a huge undertaking and the advantages and disadvantages should be thought through carefully, from every angle, before taking the leap.

So I am not trying to advise anyone else to get a pet. I'm just writing this because I want to say how much I love and appreciate my two. And as I finish typing, they're both still flat out asleep. Sweet.