Posted by Jennifer Wickham, L.P.C.
October 02, 2015
Humans are the complete social being. Like many animals, humans live in our own packs and strive to form a connection with other living things.
In 10,000 B.C., dogs, thought to be the first domesticated animal, were found buried cradled in the arms of their owners. In 7,500 B.C., the first evidence of domesticated cats were found in Egyptian burials.
In modern times, what parent hasn’t experienced their child looking up at them doe-eyed and hopeful while saying, “Can I have a puppy? A kitty? A pony?”
Pets continue to be an optional part of our modern lives. Research shows that our desire to connect with our pets can be a valuable asset for those struggling with physical and emotional pain; mental illnesses, such as depression and anxiety; and environmental factors, such as loneliness. The potential benefits of pet ownership and pet therapy began to be explored in research in the 1980s. This research found that the companionship of pets may be important in fostering positive mental health and well-being in people (McNicols, 2005). In July 2011, the American Psychological Association reported on a study which found pets serve as an important social and emotional support for “everyday people” and for those with “significant health challenges.” This study examined the outcomes of those individuals who owned a pet and those who did not. The results show that “pet owners fared better in terms of well-being outcomes.” Though not a replacement for social interaction with people, pets do provide social support and stress reduction.
We know through medical research that increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol slow immune response to injury sites. When this occurs, the healing process can be delayed causing increased recovery times. Developing strategies for reducing stress in everyday life and in health crisis situations has been a recent focus for all.
Many hospitals and clinics now have policies allowing for pets to be present to provide emotional support and companionship to ease the stress of illness and pain. In October 2014, my father benefitted greatly from visits with his Yorkie dog, Sophie, while being evaluated and treated for a stroke. During visits with Sophie, Dad was able to have a break from the anxiety of his medical condition and experience joy and a few laughs at the telling of some of Sophie's more famous antics. Although there were no measurable biological changes as a result of these visits, we all could see and feel the stress of the situation lessen. Having Sophie visit was a stress reliever for all of us, including my father.
So, if you own a pet, take good care of them because they take care of you. Their unconditional love for us bestows many wellness benefits.
Mayo Clinic and Mayo Clinic Health System locations offer a variety of pet therapy programs: Arizona and Florida, Eau Claire and La Crosse in Wisconsin, and Mankato and Rochester in Minnesota.
Jennifer Wickham is a licensed professional counselor in the Behavioral Health department at Mayo Clinic Health System in Eau Claire.