Crea­ture com­forts

Own­ing a pet can boost your men­tal and phys­i­cal health. But a dog or cat will need your ten­der lov­ing care in re­turn, says Áilin Quin­lan

Irish Examiner - Feelgood - - Feature -

ONE day when my son was seven years old, he got into trou­ble for be­ing naughty. Feel­ing im­mensely sorry for him­self, he went out to the back gar­den and sat on the steps to sulk.

Within sec­onds, the fam­ily dog Cleo was be­side him, nestling up to him and lick­ing his hand.

Now a strap­ping 21-year-old col­lege stu­dent, my son still re­calls the sense of warmth, sup­port, and com­fort he got that day from our beloved springer spaniel.

Cleo was like that with ev­ery mem­ber of the fam­ily and, when she died of old age sev­eral years later, we couldn’t bear to re­place her for many years — purely be­cause we all missed her so much. Even­tu­ally, we did get an­other dog, Molly, who is now just as much a part of the fam­ily.

“Stud­ies show that chil­dren who grow up with pets have psy­cho­log­i­cal and health ben­e­fits,” says vet Pete Wed­der­burn, who adds com­pan­ion an­i­mals are also good for angst-rid­den teenagers.

“An­i­mals are non-judge­men­tal and love us un­con­di­tion­ally,” ex­plains Dr Wed­der­burn, who points out that a beloved pet can make us feel bet­ter about our­selves.

Walk­ing the dog can en­cour­age us not just to take much-needed ex­er­cise — one of the ma­jor boost­ers for pos­i­tive men­tal health — but to be more so­cia­ble.

“A dog al­ways loves you and is al­ways pleased to see you. They don’t get into a mood or give out to you and they are very good at mak­ing us feel loved — it’s great for our psy­che,” says Dr Wed­der­burn.

“They’re great so­cial en­ablers too be­cause when you bring them for a walk and meet some­one else with a dog along the way, the dogs will sniff each other and you’ll find your­self talk­ing to the owner.”

Re­search over the past 15 or 20 years has shown why so many peo­ple feel bet­ter around an­i­mals, says Dr Danny Holmes, spokesman for Vet­eri­nary Ire­land and the Fed­er­a­tion of Euro­pean Com­pan­ion An­i­mals Vet­eri­nary As­so­ci­a­tions.

“Be­ing with an an­i­mal in­creases the lev­els of cer­tain happy hor­mones in hu­mans, the hor­mones which are as­so­ci­ated with good mood.

“It has an ac­tual phys­i­cal ef­fect on our bod­ies be­cause in­ter­act­ing with them cre­ates a sense of well­be­ing — they trig­ger the re­lease of [the hor­mones] sero­tonin and oxy­tocin,” he says.

Any­one who’s ever had a dog knows just how far its com­pan­ion­ship can go to­wards al­le­vi­at­ing a sense of iso­la­tion or lone­li­ness — some­thing that is be­com­ing an in­creas­ingly im­por­tant is­sue in Ir­ish so­ci­ety to­day where ac­cord­ing to the 2016 cen­sus, some 400,000 peo­ple now live alone.

A pet can also help to re­duce stress. Re­search car­ried out at the Cen­tre for Hu­man-An­i­mal In­ter­ac­tion at Vir­gina Com­mon­wealth Univer­sity in the US backs up her point. A pi­lot study sug­gests that health­care pro­fes­sion­als, who spend as lit­tle as five min­utes with a ther­apy dog, for ex­am­ple, ex­pe­ri­ence the same lev­els of stress re­duc­tion as health­care pro­fes­sion­als who spend 20 min­utes rest­ing qui­etly.

Are some breeds of dog more loyal or friendly than oth­ers?

“I’ve moved away from try­ing to rec­om­mend a cer­tain breed for dif­fer­ent peo­ple,” says Dr Wed­der­burn.

In­stead, his years of ex­pe­ri­ence have led him to urge peo­ple to con­sider adopting a res­cue dog as a pet. Firstly, he says, many res­cue dogs “are lovely an­i­mals who just hap­pened to be in sit­u­a­tions where things didn’t work out.” Se­condly, res­cue cen­tre staff are usu­ally highly ex­pe­ri­enced at match­ing peo­ple to dogs.

“They have a strong in­ter­est in get­ting the right an­i­mal for you. If you just buy a pedi­gree dog the per­son may only want to sell the an­i­mal.”

And what about cats? Fe­lines, says Dr Wed­der­burn, gen­er­ally fall into one of three cat­e­gories.

“There’s the soft love­able cat who wants to sit on your lap and purr. There’s the scaredy-cat who is highly strung and van­ishes when vis­i­tors come into the house, and there’s the grumpy cat who wants to do its own thing and will growl and even bite.”

Cats can be a bit un­pre­dictable, he ob­serves. How­ever, don’t give up hope. Get the right kind of cat and you can be very happy.

Dr Holmes points to re­search car­ried out by the Men­tal Health Foun­da­tion in 2011, which found that 90% of peo­ple who had a cat felt their fe­line had a pos­i­tive im­pact on their men­tal health as a re­sult of look­ing af­ter their pet and the phys­i­cal com­fort that came from stroking it.

A res­cue dog or cat will only cost a do­na­tion to the an­i­mal shel­ter - whereas to pur­chase a pedi­gree dog or cat up­front can cost hun­dreds of euro, depend­ing on the breed.

And that’s only the start of the costs you can ex­pect to face when in­tro­duc­ing a pet to your home.

Al­though most an­i­mal shel­ters will have had your re-homed an­i­mal spayed or neutered and vac­ci­nated and mi­cro-chipped, there are still the costs of set­tling them into your home. The ba­sics such as a bed, food bowls, toys, and a col­lar, plus a lead for a dog will set you back around €100 for a dog, while the bed, food bowls, toys, a lit­ter-tray and scratch­ing post for a cat can add up to over €70.

You’ll also have to pur­chase a dog li­cence — €20 a year or €140 for a life­time li­cence. And then you’ll have to get your pet vac­ci­nated reg­u­larly, which varies in price but costs some­where in the re­gion of €35 for a dog and around the same for a cat.

Pet in­sur­ance, if you opt for it, can cost in the re­gion of €150 a year. You will also need to con­sider the on­go­ing cost of pet-food and of course, ken­nel board­ing fees if you go on hol­i­day — any­thing from €15 a day.

Re­mem­ber, hav­ing de­cided to get a dog, it’s not fair to leave it locked up in the house while you’re out all day — you need to make pro­vi­sion for its care.

It’s a good idea to ei­ther have some­one who can mind the dog while you’re out, or to use a doggy day-care fa­cil­ity.

“It’s not fair to leave a dog alone for more than six hours a day,” says Dr Wed­der­burn — it will get dis­tressed and start bark­ing or chew­ing things.

Strate­gic use of day care can be use­ful, he says. Al­though dogs don’t need it ev­ery day, send­ing your pet to doggy day-care a few days a week will keep your ca­nine so­cialised and ac­tive.

Given the many ad­van­tages that come with own­ing a pet, in­vest­ing in your four-legged friend’s health and fit­ness can only be a win-win.

“Be­ing with an an­i­mal in­creases the lev­els of cer­tain happy hor­mones in hu­mans

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