How Do Pets Improve Our Quality Of Life?

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Table of contents

  1. Physical health
  2. Mental health
  3. Conclusion

‘Quality of life’ can be defined in many ways. It is a multi-faceted summation of how healthy, happy and comfortable we are within our lives. There are many factors that influence this standard, and this documentary investigates how pets and animals help to improve human quality of life. Humans and animals share a unique bond based upon love, trust and loyalty. The domestication of animals' dates back to at least 45,000 years ago, and since then, pets and their owners have constructed a mutually symbiotic bond that positively influences both parties. The study of anthrozoology, established in 1987, is a branch of research dedicated to understanding the interactions between human and non-human species - a leading example being humans and pets. With an estimated 50% of UK adults being pet owners, it is no surprise that pets play such an influential role in our day to day life. This short documentary will explore how pets improve our quality of life, focusing on different aspects of physical and mental health and wellbeing.

Physical health

Pets inadvertently help to improve the physical health of their owners. Many studies have shown that pets (especially dogs) are directly responsible for health indicators such as like decreased cholesterol levels, lower blood pressure and a lower heart rate. A study conducted in California showed rates of asthma were reduced in a sample of 488 pet-owning elderly households, due to the introduction of low-level daily exercise. The responsibility of walking your dog promotes better health, as it encourages pet owners to take time out of each day to be in fresh air on their feet, rather than at home laying on the sofa. A particular study conducted by James Serpell in 1991 is a testament to these findings. The 10-month study compared the health changes in non-pet owners in comparison to others who had just got their first pet. Daily exercise levels were significantly higher in dog owners, and their level of general health was consistently higher throughout the entire 10 months. Serpell concluded the study by saying “The results provide evidence that pet acquisition may have positive effects on human health and behaviour, and that in some cases these effects are relatively long term.” In addition to this, pet ownership has been linked to higher survival rates from coronary heart disease, as well as increasing the life span of heart attack patients. Consistent, low level exercise provides pet owners with a simple way to maintain their physical health, as well as improving the relationship they share with their pet. But for many, this bond is far more than convenient. Thousands of pet owners worldwide rely on their pets to aid their basic physical ability.

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Since 1931, the charity Guide Dogs has embraced canine intelligence and used it to improve the lives of the visually impaired. Dogs have extremely high levels of sensory intuition and are therefore able to act as the eyes of their owners, playing the role of a visual guide. A 2-way bond based upon complete trust is essential to ensure the safety and wellbeing of both parties. These incredible dogs are professionally trained to respond to follow specific signals and commands, observing the gestures and body language of their owners. This extra level of support gives the visually impaired the chance to live more freely and independently, whilst still feeling safe in unfamiliar situations guide dogs and their owners develop an incredibly unique bond that boosts self-confidence and combats feelings of isolation. Being the largest organisation of its kind, the Guide Dogs have helped over 200,000 people to simplify their disabilities, playing a leading role in the normalisation of visual difficulty within a modern society. Globally, many governments extend the rights of assistance dogs, excluding them from normal entry restrictions- which is why you may see guide dogs in places where other dogs aren’t allowed. This gives more opportunities for the visually impaired to live a life undefined by their disability. Whilst researching this topic I came across a story that presents the power of guide dogs in their most selfless form. During the 2001 Twin Towers terrorist attack, completely blind Mike Hingson and 30 of his colleagues were led down 78 flights of stairs by his indescribably brave guide dog Roselle. Amongst all the chaos, Roselle remained completely calm, staying alert until all 31 people were safe. At the same time, Omar Rivera was being helped by his guide dog Salty down 71 floors, navigating his way out of the building for over an hour. Omar dropped the lead, giving Salty the opportunity to run to safety, yet he stayed by his side- a true testament to their companionship. In reflection, Omar stated “It was at that moment I realized that Salty loved me as much as I loved him,” which perfectly summates the values and aims of assistance dogs.

Mental health

A vital factor contributing to quality of life is mental health. As a population, we are becoming increasingly more comfortable talking about how we feel, and pets help us normalise the acknowledgment of mental health. It is not new information that pets have countless positive impacts on your mental state. Much like guide dogs reacting to physical gestures, pets have a high emotional intelligence, analysing our feelings from things like body language, tone of voice and heartrate. In a study I conducted amongst my college peers, 81% of participants notice their emotions having an impact on the behaviour of their pets. But this is a multi-directional phenomenon. Our bodies associate pets with a state of relaxation and happiness. Spending time with them triggers the parasympathetic branch of the nervous system, responsible for maintaining the state of rest, which causes the release of all the feel-good hormones, such as serotonin, oxytocin, dopamine and sometimes even adrenaline. The natural temperament of pets and their gestures of affection encourage the body to destress, which strengthens the positivity owners associate with their pets. In fact, studies have found owners have the same hormonal response to seeing their pets as they do to seeing their children. FMRI studies have shown that the regions of the brain responsible for love and adoration light up intensely when owners look at pictures of their children, and the same reaction is triggered when seeing photos of their pets. The celebrated social worker Stuart Hutton summarised the familial role pets play by saying ‘animals were in families before social workers came into being. It is social workers that act like animals in these situations rather than the other way around’. A key characteristic of pets is how generous they are with their love, which provides their owners with a sense of purpose and pride, helping to combat mental health issues such as depression and anxiety.

A key example of the power pets have in impacting mental health, is the role they play in rehabilitation centres such as prisons and correctional facilities. The prison for the criminally insane in Ohio conducted a study after a group of inmates secretly nursed an injured sparrow, giving up some of their food and water to help it return to good health. Officers working on the ward had noticed inmates were significantly more cooperative and sociable, which led to a further comparison with another ward. The prisoners who looked after the sparrow were less violent, more stable and required less medicinal help than the other. A small bird gave the prisoners a sense of purpose and achievement, the impact of which was a reduction in reoffence rates that year. Pets can make subtle yet highly significant differences to the state of our mental health, which can have a permeant influence on the way we see ourselves in the wider world. The friendship between pet and owner is based upon a mutual love and trust unlike any other, unique in its unconditional affections.

A more conventional and perhaps more obvious way in which pets can improve mental health is through animal assisted therapy. For thousands of years, doctors have seen the psychological benefits animals can have in restoring mental stability. Back in the middle ages, Belgian doctors were using dogs as a natural method to rehabilitate humans into society. Dating back even further than that, Ancient Greeks have been found to have used horses as a way of calming sick patients and recovering their mental health after injury. There are endless examples throughout history of animals being used as a support or even a replacement for medicine, as their calming temperament is a direct remedy for mental illness. Florence Nightingale described this situation simply, stating that “a small pet animal is often an excellent companion for the sick…”.

Looking further than illness, animals are also excellent at helping humans cope with trauma and grief. In 1998, psychiatrist Cindy Ehlers took her husky Bear to meet students effected by a school shooting incident in Thurston High School, Oregon. The students were obviously very traumatised and were reluctant to speak to the therapists on site, but they became evidently more relaxed and responsive when comforted by the dog. The silent support animals can offer can be more comforting and reassuring than the vocal support provided by a peer, as they are unconditionally caring and unjudgmental. The charity ‘Pets As Therapy’ recognises this gift, and uses it to help uplift those in need. They provide visits from volunteer owners and their cats or dogs to almost 7000 different facilities including hospitals, schools, prisons, hospices and care homes. These visits give patients the chance to interact with these pets, creating a calming and therapeutic atmosphere to distract from things like operations, exams, grief, stress or just as a way to improve their general wellbeing. Each therapy pet is trained to ensure their temperament suits their ‘workplace’, maximising the benefits they can provide. The incredible work Pet’s as Therapy does is nationally recognised, featuring on popular media outlets such as This Morning, BBC News and Blue Peter. Earlier this year, Blue Peter joined a therapy dog on their hospital visit and were able to interview one of the patients. The young girl said, ‘I feel calm. When you’re stroking him, you just forget about everything else’. Hospitals can be a potentially very frightening place for young children, and Pets as Therapy are helping to alleviate some of that stress, which is an incredibly humbling thing to be able to do every day. The charity also offers a ‘Read2Dogs’ scheme, in which volunteers and their pets visit classrooms to help improve social confidence and literacy. Rather than reading to a whole class, students can read aloud to the dogs, which is a lot less daunting and this acts as a great confidence booster to help further their development. Evidence shows that introducing dogs to a school environment leads to better motivation, more desire to learn, better attendance and achievement as well as some understanding of responsibility and empathy. To learn more about this, I interviewed the Head of Wellbeing at my college to see what differences she notices when her support dog Hugo is on site. (WORK OUT WHICH CLIP FROM VIDEO)

Conclusion

Pets play a huge role in improving human quality of life. Seemingly Instinctively they provide immense joy and entertainment that has a positive impact on the physical and mental health of their owners. Looking at all the evidence gathered, Mental Health campaigner Marrion Jenner perfectly summarises the widespread affection pets provide: “Dogs love us unconditionally. They’re the ultimate in equal opportunities – entirely indifferent to race, gender, star sign, CV, clothes size or ability to throw cool moves on the dance floor. The simplicity and depth of this love is a continuous joy, along with the health benefits of daily walks and the social delights of chats with other dog walkers. They teach kids to be responsible, altruistic and compassionate and, valuably but sadly, how to cope when someone you love dies.” I want to end this documentary by showing the responses I gathered in my survey, when I asked what the best thing about their pets was:

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How Do Pets Improve Our Quality Of Life? (2022, February 17). Edubirdie. Retrieved June 21, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/how-do-pets-improve-our-quality-of-life/
“How Do Pets Improve Our Quality Of Life?” Edubirdie, 17 Feb. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/how-do-pets-improve-our-quality-of-life/
How Do Pets Improve Our Quality Of Life? [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/how-do-pets-improve-our-quality-of-life/> [Accessed 21 Jun. 2024].
How Do Pets Improve Our Quality Of Life? [Internet] Edubirdie. 2022 Feb 17 [cited 2024 Jun 21]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/how-do-pets-improve-our-quality-of-life/
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