When pets are family, the benefits extend to the community.

There is a growing global trend to consider pets as part of the family. In fact, millions of people around the world adore their pets, enjoying their company, their walks, their play and even their conversations. And there is evidence that affection for pets is good for human health and even helps build community.

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Increasingly, animals are being included in family activities and becoming important to all family members. This can be especially important in single-parent families, where a pet can be an important companion for children. Children with pets may have higher levels of empathy and self-esteem compared to those without pets. Thinking of pets as family members can make the work involved in caring for pets less stressful than for those who think of pets as their property. Caring for a pet increases attachment to the pet, which in turn reduces stress for owners.

In a study by me and my colleagues on aging and social engagement, we found a significant analysis showing that interactions with pets, especially if we care for them, can have a protective effect. Zooeya is the idea that pets, also known as companion animals, can be beneficial to human health. In fact, it has been found that pet owners in Germany and Australia visit the doctor 15% fewer times a year than those without pets.
Healthy, emotional connections

Many health benefits come from emotional attachment to pets. And what matters most to us are the animals that live with us. For example, a study on attachment to dogs revealed that people tend to care more about their companion dogs than those living in the yard. Greater attachment to the dog is associated with a greater likelihood of walking the dog and spending more time on those walks, compared to those who have a weaker bond with their dogs.

Sharing life with a companion animal has been associated with a lower risk of coronary heart disease, reduced stress levels, and increased physical activity (especially when walking dogs). The presence of a companion animal during a stressful activity has been shown to reduce blood pressure in partners involved in a stressful situation. In fact, levels of beta-endorphin, oxytocin and dopamine, among other markers, increased in both humans and dogs during affectionate interactions, demonstrating that time spent together is physiologically beneficial to both species. And companion animal ownership has been associated with increased survival of cardiovascular disease in older adults (aged 65-84 years) treated for hypertension.
Companion animals as members of the family and community.

Because many people consider pets to be members of the family, the loss of a dog or cat is often a source of deep grief. A missing or deceased pet is difficult for many to replace because the human-animal relationship was specific to those people. The human-animal bond is often so strong that grief, much like the feelings and behaviors associated with the loss of a human family member, is common.

The human-animal bond is not only beneficial to human health, but can also help build community. People with companion animals often find that activities with their companion animal create connections with other people. Social networks based on a shared concern for animal welfare can lead to increased human-to-human interaction and activities with companion animals (e.g., dog walking clubs). Walking dogs takes people out of private places, which may be isolated, and into public places where interaction with neighbors and other dog walkers is possible.

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In addition to the health benefits of physical activity, walking your dog has many social and community benefits. Photo by mentatdgt from Pexels

Protecting pets

Societies create laws and institutions to protect companion animals from cruelty and neglect. In most jurisdictions, shelter and kennel regulations have not evolved to reflect the loved status of many companion animals, but instead treat them as property. If a lost pet is not reunited with its owner within a few days, it may be sold to a new family, sold to a research laboratory or euthanized. However, some countries, such as India, Italy and Taiwan, have legislated against euthanizing healthy shelter animals.

But in North America, euthanasia remains commonplace. In 2017, Humane Canada found that among the shelters it surveyed, more than 70% of lost dogs and cats went unclaimed and tens of thousands of dogs and cats had been euthanized. In 2016, 4,308,921 animals were experimented on in laboratories across Canada. Approximately 17,000 were domestic dogs and cats that were provided by shelters to research laboratories and then euthanized.

The strength of the human-animal bond has led to the creation of non-profit animal rescue centers whose mission is to "pull" stray and abandoned animals from shelters before they are euthanized or sold for research. For example, Marley's Hope is Nova Scotia's multi-racial rescue organization. The organization also collaborates with the Sipekne'katik First Nation to help rehabilitate stray dogs and sterilize them when possible. Toronto (Ontario) Railway rescues dogs and cats from dog and cat shelters, as well as dogs and cats offered "free to a good home" on the Internet. And Elderdog helps seniors care for their pets, in addition to rescuing abandoned senior dogs.

The Humane Society International - Canada helps with programs to eliminate sterilization and protect and rescue animals, including the international dog and cat meat industry. In 2018, they closed three South Korean meat farms and two slaughterhouses, and rescued 512 dogs, many of which found homes in Canada and the United States.

Mohandas Gandhi understood the importance of the human bond with animals. In his autobiography, he said that "the superiority of man over the lower animals does not mean that the former should prey on the latter, but that the superior should protect the inferior and that there should be mutual aid between them." Recognizing how companion animals enrich human life, and understanding the depth of love between many humans and animals, may be the key not only to improved health, but also to the well-being of society as a whole.


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