Horse Dog Cat
When companion animals are more than just pets
By John Bower BVSc MRCVS and a Trustee of The Petplan Charitable Trust

The relationship that develops between a person and their companion animal is much deeper than that of just companionship, and one of the most surprising effects is the speed at which this so-called bond develops.  Most veterinarians will tell of the numerous times when, for example, they are examining a new puppy that has been purchased that week or even that day, and find a congenital problem that will lead to expense and time, their advice to return the pup to the breeder is not accepted!  The person or family has bonded already and will not return the pup!  Quite rightly they worry about what will happen to the pup if they do return it but also have already taken to its character and feel protective and responsible.

The family cat, dog, and even these days rabbit, guinea pig and even smaller assume a definite place in the home as "one of the family".  How many of us do not talk to our dog as if it were a 5 year old child?  Very few I suspect.  I find myself asking Dudley, our Jack Russell Terrier if he would like a walk, and many clients on entering our waiting rooms ask their pets where they would like to sit!  We don't believe that many pets are child substitutes, but they definitely occupy an important place in the family, and the grief shown by owners when this very important family member has died should not be underestimated.  It lasts for a very long time; surveys have shown that about 60% of bereaved owners grieve deeply for well over 6 months and some say the feelings never go away!  And the companion animal does not have to be small to be cared for in this fashion - the feelings for the horse are just as marked.  This particular animal can be part of the family for in excess of 30 years and the bond is just as strong as with household pets.  Many a pony or horse has been buried in a field at great expense to ensure a dignified end.

So why is this and is the bond beneficial to us humans?   Well, they are all forgiving, non judgemental, always welcoming and often amusing.  In a family they enable children to learn about caring for others, and it's not surprising that most pets are owned by families with young children.  So we bond with them.  And certainly the pet is beneficial to the owner.  Dog owners are generally more fit due to exercising the dog, and this is proved by surveys which show that dog owners consult doctors less frequently.  Dogs also improve communication; there's nothing simpler that talking to someone on a walk with a dog as everyone wants to stop and talk with the dog as the catalyst.  Much easier than talking to a complete stranger if neither have a dog!  Thus dogs reduce loneliness both directly and indirectly.  Surprisingly they also reduce the chance of a heart attack, and improve recovery after one.  This is due in part to one's exercise routine, but also because merely stroking a dog reduces blood pressure.  To this end, so does stroking a cat or rabbit that lives in the house with you.

There are in fact many medical benefits to owning a pet.  One was vividly illustrated to me years ago after my mother broke her hip and needed a hip replacement operation.  She felt this was the end of her mobile life and flatly refused to do the walking the doctor had prescribed.  Fortunately I was going on holiday and asked my parents if they would look after our dog at the time - another Jack Russell - to which they rapidly agreed.  On telephoning my father some two weeks later he asked if the could keep Russ for a little bit longer as he was so good for my mother's walking.  Apparently she had insisted that the dog needed a walk and she was going to go with him!  My mother's walking improved rapidly; I never did manage to reclaim my dog, and was pleased to release him under these circumstances.  Another similar amazing situation arose by a forward thinking local council a good few years ago who were worried about the level of deaths in pensioners through hypothermia one winter and didn't want it to happen again.  They hit on the idea of a free budgie in a cage for any pensioner with the strict instruction that the bird would die if the temperature in the room dropped below 60 degrees!  There were considerably fewer cases of hypothermia in these pensioners in the following years!

It's been found that people who cannot easily communicate with others do so more openly when pets are involved and this is an area that Petplan Charitable Trust can help with.  Although the Petplan Charitable Trust through its Welfare Committee recommends that the Trustees award grants to deserving purely animal charities, we have become involved in a number of projects where there is also a valuable human dimension.

In all just over £137,000 has been given to projects such as this - for more details please go to Animals and People



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