In today’s New York Times I read an article by a well-known writer stating that there is no scientific evidence that having a pet, or living with an animal (be it cat, dog, bird, reptile…) benefit a person’s physical or mental health ( http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/04/opinion/04herzog.html?_r=1&src=me&ref=general). While the writer states that he is an animal lover and owner and that he believes in the various powerful emotions that loving an animal can elicit from a person, there is no scientific proof that holding a cat, petting a dog, or doing the necessary acts of caring, such as feeding and grooming, positively alter a person’s health.
I read this article with interest as I had believed there was scientific proof that caring for and loving a pet directly improved the quality of a person’s physical and mental health. From personal experience, to knowing about service dogs and multiple programs where dogs or other animals are used to assist (Paws to Read, Pitpulls and Paroles, Autistics using pet therapy) to witnessing the relationships between friends and their pets, I have only seen positive effects from human – animal relationships. Of course there can be difficulties, things that may cause stress: an animal’s illness, veterinary bills, losing a pet, the responsibilities of exercise even in cold or rainy weather, its inevitable death…but all of these are part of life shared with another sentient being. To stroke a cat’s soft fur, to play tug-of-war with a happy pup, to listen to a bird sing or feel the powerful muscles of a horse quiver beneath your hands all feed the spirit, bringing a smile to lips and hearts. An animal in the house provides comfort, a steady and constant ear, a shoulder to curl up next to, someone to come home to and love. Who cares if there is no concrete, empirical evidence to “prove” the benefits? Anyone who has a pet, who loves an animal, knows that science cannot explain everything, that science cannot measure emotions or the feelings of the heart.
After I read this article I watched my old dog sleeping outside in the winter sunshine. He loves to wander outdoors when the weather permits, to sit in a patch of warmth and either enjoy dog-dreams, limbs and eyelids twitching, or stare into the wind or sun, a slight smile on his quiet face. He is my constant companion of almost 15 years and to say that he has increased my world, taught me about love and patience and play, is an understatement. My life would be so different without my dog, my confidant, my four-footed friend. He has made me smile a million times, calmed me when I was stressed, helped me when I felt scared or lonely…Maybe these things are not quantifiable, but to me they are absolute proof that living with a pet opens the heart and teaches us about the vast world outside of our own small human existence.
To see him lounging in the grass makes me feel happy and sad, as I know each year takes him farther away from me in a strange way. He sleeps more now – alot more. He moves slowly. He wanders on the trails and bumps into things. He doesn’t always come when I call, maybe due to hearing issues or maybe he is simply honoring his own agenda. He is an old dog, a dog who has earned his time in the cold winter sunshine. While he is still energetic and loves to play with his stuffed toys, his days are mostly quiet. He eats, he sleeps, he meanders through walks. He still listens to me with accepting ears and offers me worlds of advice through his cloudy blue eyes.
So I don’t give a hoot (pun intended!) about the scientific community. I know that the quality of my life is better because of living with and loving this amazing being. Funny, but after I read the piece in the Times, I also read the comments….Out of 62 posted, almost all writers were stating how much they loved their pets, how they had witnessed small miracles via their animals, how living with or working next to a furry creature had improved their lives. I smiled. I knew I was not alone in my beliefs because some things cannot be proven with a lab or though tests. Some things simply are and they are even more powerful because of their ability to make us feel and to remind us of the mysteries that still exist in our world.