I’ve always loved dogs, but allergies in the household kept me from having one. After a painful divorce 18 years ago, I decided to buy a little non-shedding poodle/terrier. On the way home from the pet store I tried out a raft of names as I waited for her to pee at a roadside stop.

“Piddle, Blackie,” “Piddle, Lulu,” and “Piddle, Irma” just didn’t cut it. But when “Piddle, Libbie” brought results, the die was cast. Libby became my number one companion.

Having Libby

When my son learned of my new acquisition, he said, “I’m so glad you have a dog, Mom. Now you won’t be lonely.”

Actually, I hadn’t been bothered by loneliness (I’m a busy woman), but it gave me pause. What had changed in my life was that Libby made me laugh, often and well. Her antics were forever amusing, and I had to admit that I did enjoy having a little buddy.

For 17 years, Libby took me on morning and afternoon walks, also accompanying me on countless hikes, kayak outings, and canoe trips.

She moved overseas with me for a stint teaching in Turkey, adapting quickly from chasing chipmunks to chasing the local felines. She was forever my best pal, and I got a lot more exercise with her in my life.

Pets Bring Joy

Research has repeatedly shown that pet ownership improves quality of life, particularly for seniors. Human Animal-Companion Interaction (HAI) can have a significant effect on the lives of both you and your animal.

Many people believe that interaction with a pet increases oxytocin. In a collaborative collection of numerous HAI studies, an international team of researchers concluded that both HAI and oxytocin were found to promote social interaction, to reduce stress and anxiety, and to enhance human health.

The researchers concurred that “evidence exists for positive effects of HAI on: reduction of stress-related parameters such as epinephrine and norepinephrine; improvement of immune system functioning and pain management; increased trustworthiness of and trust toward other persons; reduced aggression; enhanced empathy and improved learning.”

If that sounds a little too academic (which it is), read on.

Rebecca A. Johnson, Ph.D., is director of the Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction at the University of Missouri’s Sinclair School of Nursing. Johnson’s online report of her own research, as well as that of other researchers, includes numerous advantages to pet ownership, such as:

  • Post heart-attack patients with pets had an increased survival rate of one year over non-pet owners.
  • Elderly pet owners had lower blood pressure, triglyceride, and cholesterol levels.
  • US adults who walked dogs accumulated at least 30 minutes of walking in bouts of at least 10 minutes.
  • Older adult pet owners are less likely to be depressed.
  • Hospitalized patients reported less pain and used fewer analgesics during and after an animal visit.
  • Dog walking is associated with lower body mass index, fewer limitations in activities, fewer doctor visits, and more frequent moderate and vigorous exercise.

The Pet Species Is Up to You

My research has shown evidence for these positive results with any kind of pet, except that cats, lizards, and tropical fish don’t require daily walks. Go figure. Of course, if you have an aversion to dogs, dog ownership is probably going to do you little good. Consider a fish tank.

Incredible results have been found with equine therapy, a system of therapy involving contact with (not necessarily riding) horses. An interview done with Julie Rovner, a pet therapist, was published by National Public Radio’s Talk of the Nation.

In that interview she shared some amazing stories about breaking through communication barriers with patients as they connected with horses.

Many kinds of animals can elicit a strong emotional response from people upon interaction, possibly because HAI involves four of our five senses: sight, smell, sound, and touch. That multi-faceted connection can break barriers that we may have built around ourselves – around our emotions.

Pets Provide a Purpose

Another finding revealed in this interview was that owning a dog (or being responsible for any pet) gives us a sense of purpose. Our pets need us for their well-being, and they usually reciprocate with affection. How could you possibly think your dog didn’t love you?

Research and personal experience have taught me the value of a relationship with an animal, and for the past 17 years that animal was Libby Lou. It broke my heart to put her down last fall, and I understand why a lot of people resist taking on a pet because they don’t want to lose them.

I’m thankful for all the great years I shared with Libby. No other dog can replace her, but I’m confident that I’ll bond with another one before too long – just not quite yet.

What kind of pet do you have? What’s their name? What do you do with them? How long have you been together? What benefits do you experience from having a pet? Please share in the comments below.

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