The benefits of being a pet owner are widely accepted as positive but what is the value of having another heartbeat in the house? For a significant proportion of people, a household pet is as much a part of being a Brit as fish and chips and Sunday lunch. Pets are an integral part of many families.
I can’t recall a time in my life where I didn’t have a pet. In the 1970s most families had a tortoise, a Lassie or a cat. I was the proud owner of a Sheba, who was my partner in crime, best bud through childhood and go-to guy in adolescence. He comforted me when I was sad, protected me when I was scared and accompanied me on adventures.
Friendship and companionship are often the motivators to make the decision to acquire a pet. A pet shop owner recently informed me that there had been an upsurge in sales of budgies, particularly amongst older people who had been recently widowed. I find this heartening, while a small pet cannot compensate for such a life-changing loss, it can provide a focus.
It is my belief that animals in the home provide young people with precious life learning. They encourage responsibility, nurturing and lessons in the process of loss and death. Young people growing up in a chaotic or disruptive household will often have a strong attachment to a family pet as they are the only constant. In a world dominated by social media, the internet, and gaming, a dog can ensure young people are going outdoors rather than glued to consoles, tablets or smartphones.
It is acknowledged that stroking a pet is helpful in lowering the heart rate and instilling a sense of calm. Walking and running are accepted stress-relieving pursuits and are positive in improving general health and fitness, and an inevitable part of being a dog owner is exercise.
As a parent of a young adult with multiple health issues, visual impairment and complex needs, I am fully aware of the positive impact pets have on my daughter’s wellbeing. Animals have proved a saving grace on so many levels. Our home resembles a petting zoo and bears the ravages of several pets, yet still the rewards outweigh the chaos. The animals have provided my daughter with loyal companions, encouraged and enabled her to express herself and taught her empathy and nurturing skills. Her attachment to animals is far more evident than that to people. There are no subtle or hidden social cues with animals, no loaded questions and only simple, honest expectations. At the risk of sounding like a plot line from Lassie, our previous dog laid with her after she suffered an epileptic seizure providing warmth, comfort and safety.
As an addictions specialist, I have also witnessed the benefits of pets to people in recovery. This is now promoted in the wider media. A Street Cat Named Bob proved to be life-changing for his owner in many ways but primarily he was instrumental in him making the decision to stop using drugs. My husband David is in recovery from alcohol addiction. He had never experienced having a pet before and now in adulthood is a proud “dog father” and cat owner. He constantly reflects on the joy and positive regard the animals have brought to his life.
Acquiring a pet is not an antidote to mental health problems, addiction or life’s challenges, but I think it can improve and enhance emotional and physical wellbeing. Irrespective of age, we all crave to be valued and loved. I maintain that the size of the heartbeat is irrelevant, budgie to bullmastiff, a pet is a friend and a reason to get up in the morning.