Benefits Of Animal Companionship
Companion animals have been found to improve the physical, emotional, and social well-being of people, though many reported benefits are anecdotal or correlational. Compared to those without pets, animal guardians have been found to report less extensive medication-taking and fewer minor health problems, including indigestion, constipation, insomnia, cold sores, and headaches. They also tend to make fewer trips to the doctor and have shorter hospital stays when hospitalization does occur. Pet guardians over age sixty-five tend to have higher scores on measures of activities of daily living (ADLs) than those without pets. Furthermore, over the period of one year, older people who do not have pets tend to experience a greater decline in their ADL scores than people who do.
People with animal companions have been found to have fewer risks for heart disease— including lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol levels, and lower serum triglyceride levels—compared to non-pet-owners. While pets do not guarantee protection against heart disease, in a classic study by Erika Friedmann (1980), pet guardians who had suffered a heart attack were found to have higher survival rates after one year than those without pets. Pet owners tend to be more active than non-pet-owners, though many of the physical benefits provided by companion animals hold even when owners do not walk or exercise their pet.
In addition to physical benefits, a variety of psychological, emotional, and social benefits have been associated with pet companionship. Compared to non-pet-owners, people with animal companions have been found to experience less loneliness and isolation, to have lower rates of depression, and to have a greater sense of psychological and emotional well-being.
Contact with animals has been found to have a soothing effect on people. Whether measured by self-report or by physiological response, lower levels of anxiety have been found in the presence of a friendly animal. These effects are present in a variety of situations, including daily, routine activities and stress-provoking activities such as visits to the dentist. During exceptionally high stress periods, such as loss of a spouse, animal companions can act as a "stress buffer" (Siegel, 1990). In Alzheimer's disease nursing-home units, residents with regular contact with dogs have been found to be more calm and less agitated than residents without dog contact. Additionally, caregivers of persons with Alzheimer's fare better on some measures of psychological health when they own pets.
Having a pet can also combat feelings of uselessness. The tasks involved in daily animal care can make a person feel needed, as well as motivate a person to maintain stability and routine in his or her life. When a person's identity goes through transitions—at retirement, for instance—having a pet can provide a new or anchoring status. This in turn can promote human social bonding with other people with a similar status.
Other types of human social interaction are also promoted through animal companionship. Animals have been said to act as a "social lubricant" or "ice-breaker" in human interactions. In public spaces, being accompanied by an animal elicits friendly smiles and conversation from both strangers and acquaintances. When visiting pets are in a nursing-home setting, not only do residents and employees interact with the animal and the animal handler, but more interactions also occur between and among patients and staff.
The increasing amount of evidence regarding the physical, emotional, and social benefits of companion animals is having an effect on institutional residential facilities for older people. The Delta Society's Pet Partners Program, the Pets On Wheels program in Maryland, Therapy Dogs International, and various local humane societies have volunteer programs in which they bring trained pets (including dogs, cats, guinea pigs, and even llamas) into nursing homes to visit with the residents. Other programs, such as The Eden Alternative, attempt to provide an enriched environment in residential institutions, which includes not only incorporation of permanent pet residents, but also flower and vegetable gardens, interaction with young children, and other enhancing stimuli. Nursing-home director Bill Thomas founded The Eden Alternative as an attempt to combat boredom, helplessness, and loneliness in residential institutions. Eighteen months after altering the habitat of the first Eden Alternative home, the residents there were found to take fewer psychotropic medications and have lower mortality rates than similar older people in a more traditional nursing home environment. Thomas believes that within the Eden Alternative homes that now exist across the United States and Canada, the residents' commitment to caring for the animals provides them with a reason to continue living.