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dog effect

Behavioural and physiological responses were assessed across various exam phases.

Background noise increased respiratory rate, but no other measures were affected.

Behavioural responses were increased during hands-on phases of the examination.

Dogs were exposed to either background noise or no noise during a routine examination.

Handling has a greater influence on dog stress than noise during an examination.

“Pet care and self-care are linked. When you take a dog out for a walk, people talk to you and that may be the only social contact an isolated person has the whole day. If you have a cat, you can have a conversation standing in the cat food aisle in the supermarket, deciding which brand to buy. When pet owners leave the house to buy pet food, they’re more likely to buy food for themselves and when they feed their pet, they’ll sit down to eat too. People with disabilities often find that able-bodied people are socially awkward with them; if they have a dog it breaks down barriers and allows a more comfortable and natural interaction.”

Robert Doward* felt this odd effect when his health suddenly took a downward turn. “I’d been working incredibly hard, long hours, too many days. One day I started crying and just couldn’t stop. I couldn’t put sentences together properly. I’d been pushing everything so hard for so long, and I just couldn’t do it any more.”

But why? What is responsible for these therapeutic effects? One key aspect appears to be social recognition – the process of identifying another being as someone important and significant to you. The bond that forms between owner and pet is, it seems, similar to the bond that a mother forms with her baby.

Patient Rayssa plays with Troia, a therapeutically trained dog, during a therapy session in Hospital Infantil Sabará in Sāo Paulo, Brazil.
Photograph: Nacho Doce/Reuters

W hat is it about animals? As the bad news about the coronavirus continues, “send me dogs and cats” has become a regular cry on social media, an easy-to-grasp shorthand for “I feel terrible, cheer me up”. The response is always the same: a torrent of pictures of animals doing daft things – but somehow it has a magical, calming effect.

The importance of social recognition is increasingly acknowledged for the role it plays in helping us form networks. We now understand that healthy social bonds can play a key role in mental health; without them, we become lonely, depressed and physically unwell. And pets, it seems, can fulfil that role. Academic and psychologist June McNicholas points out that pets can be a lifeline for socially isolated people.

Although scientists have some understanding of social recognition and where it takes place in the brain, we still don’t entirely understand how it happens. The missing link could be oxytocin, the so-called “hug”, “love” or “cuddle” hormone. Oxytocin has a key role in both childbirth, lactation and sperm movement, but it also has an increasingly recognised role in our social behaviour, acting as a chemical messenger in pathways that control sexual arousal, recognition, trust, mother-infant and human-pet bonding.

Providing companionship. Companionship can help prevent illness and even add years to your life, while isolation and loneliness can trigger symptoms of depression. Caring for an animal can help make you feel needed and wanted, and take the focus away from your problems, especially if you live alone. Most dog and cat owners talk to their pets, some even use them to work through their troubles. And nothing beats loneliness like coming home to a wagging tail or purring cat.

Not only do children who grow up with pets have less risk of allergies and asthma, many also learn responsibility, compassion, and empathy from having a dog or cat.

Any pet can improve your health

Helping you meet new people. Pets can be a great social lubricant for their owners, helping you start and maintain new friendships. Dog owners frequently stop and talk to each other on walks, hikes, or in a dog park. Pet owners also meet new people in pet stores, clubs, and training classes.

Rescue groups try to find suitable homes for unwanted or abandoned dogs, cats, and other pets, many taken from shelters where they would otherwise have been euthanized. Volunteers usually take care of the animals until they can find a permanent home. This means that rescuers are often very familiar with a pet’s personality and can help advise you on whether the pet would make a good match for your needs.

If you’re looking for something smaller or with less energy, then maybe a cat or a rabbit would be right for you and your family. Here are some things to ask yourself when looking for the perfect pet: