As with raising children, dealing with pets can be stressful. But often the situation is exactly the reverse: having pets frequently provides one of the best stress relief mechanisms around.
Several studies suggest that having a pet helps recovering surgery patients heal faster. If the link between infection and stress that some of them show is correct, this shouldn’t be surprising. The positive effect on the immune system could account for that.
For many, having pets clearly has an abundance of psychological pluses as well. Cats, for example, are obviously oblivious to any problems a person might have. They want their supper and their rub while perched in a warm, stationary lap. The shift of focus to the pets wants and away from the unpleasant episode at the office can help lower stress.
The sympathetic nervous system works in conjunction with other brain areas to generate hormones and signals that create our ‘fight or flight’ mechanism. Shifting attention away activates the parasympathetic nervous system that has opposite effects. In short, we calm down. That interlude helps the body achieve homeostasis – the move back to equilibrium from an extreme – that stress has interrupted.
Dogs are terrific stress relievers, when they aren’t creating more. Digging holes in the backyard, ruining a good pair of shoes or creating a mess on the carpet certainly don’t help alleviate stress. But a short game of fetch with a tennis ball can. Watching their eager joy in simple activities is a vivid reminder that not everything in life is an occasion for doom and gloom.
Dogs have been domesticated to live with humans for over 10,000 years. During that time they have participated in a hundred common human rituals and activities, some of which can offer relief from stress symptoms. Fishing, hiking and other activities are in themselves stress relievers. When accompanied by a loved and loving dog the effect is amplified.
Even aquarium fish can provide a source of stress relief. Taking care of tropical fish requires a lot of careful planning and execution. That focus helps keep one’s mind off what often amounts to trivial problems. Additional rewards can show up by observing the many interesting behaviors sea creatures exhibit.
A variety of pets – tropical birds, hamsters, ferrets and many more – frequently display actions that people find humorous. And even the most serious psychotherapist will agree that laughter is excellent medicine when it comes to lessening stress.
Though the form of communication between animals and humans is very different from that between one person and another, there is an undeniable understanding that forms between individuals and their non-human companions. That bond is often stronger than between casual friends. The result is a feeling of support without expectation of anything other than a good fur stroking.
After all, when was the last time you ever heard anyone say ‘my dog drove me to drink’?