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Poppa’s been in hospital for the last two weeks. Until he was transferred to a hospital closer to his home we were visiting him regularly, but there was one member of the family that he couldn’t have cuddles with, & he really missed that.

And who was he missing? Ben, the little poodle.

Poppa adores Ben, & the little fella seems to know this. He’ll go and lean against the old gentleman’s leg, as Poppa sits in his chair, & be patted for ages. Ben even tolerates spending time perched on a bony elderly knee. (It helps that the dog loves being touched & actively seeks out pats & snuggles.) He’d be an ideal hospital-visiting dog – but not at the big hospital: that’s understandable because there are all sorts of hygiene issues associated with dogs (& other animals) on the wards. But a pity nonetheless.

Luckily there are organisations like CanineFriends that organise hospice and rest-home visits for well-trained pets & owners. And now that I’m aware of them, Ben & I will be signing up. There’s also a considerable body of literature examining the therapeutic benefits of spending quiet quality time with companion animals.

Back in 1996, Beck & Meyers noted that pets were found in 56% of US households. The figures are similar in New Zealand: the Petfood Manufacturers Association tells us that 53% of Kiwi households own a cat (or perhaps that should be, are owned by a cat? - in which case, the fact that we have 3 of the little tyrants makes us seriously downtrodden) & 35% own a dog. Many pet owners may treat their four-legged companions as a member of the family (& I will confess that yes, Ben does sleep at the foot of the bed – along with whichever cat is currently ruling the roost). Cats, dogs, & other domestic pets likely serve a social function – offering a point of common interest in conversation with others (a sort of ‘social lubricant’), or acting as a surrogate family member for someone living alone (Beck & Meyer, 1996; O’Haire, 2009). Plus they accept you uncritically & never answer back! (Although cats can come pretty close!) But there’s also considerable interest in the mental & physical health benefits of living with other species.

The effects of interactions with animals on human health have been studied for more than 30 years; I can remember hearing about one such study when I was still a student at Massey University. For example, O’Haire (2009) cites earlier studies showing that simply watching animals can help reduce anxiety when people are in a stressful situation. Being with a pet dog can apparently reduce cardiovascular and psychological indicators of stress, and watching fish swim around in a tank seems to reduce anxiety – which may be why you will sometimes see fish tanks in doctors’ waiting rooms. Beck & Meyers cited a 1980 report that found pet ownership enhanced the odds of surviving a heart attack, and a more recent study that noted pet owners had reduced blood pressure & plasma cholesterol.

This suggests that pet ownership – regardless of the species of companion animal – may have a positive impact on health costs: O’Haire describes a 1994 Australian study that found that “dog and cat owners had better mental and physcial health than non-owners. They made fewer annual doctor visits and were less likely to be on medication for heart problems and sleeping difficulties”. The author of that study concluded that pet ownership most likely lowered that nation’s spend on health-related services.

Such findings have led to increased interest in the therapeutic use of animals, both in ‘animal-assisted therapy’ (which focuses on specific goals for individual patients) and ‘animal-assisted activities’ (which have no treatment goals). Interacting with a dog, for example, can increase social behaviours like smiling & laughing in patients with Alzheimer’s disease (O’Haire, 2009). Interestingly, such observations go back a long way. Jorgenson (1997) provides a quote from Florence Nightingale, who said that “a small pet is often an excellent companion for the sick, for long chronic cases espectially”.

So when Poppa’s back in his own home we’ll take Ben over as often as we can – & if/when he ends up in long-term care, we’ll be talking with the institution’s managers about the benefits for Poppa (& other residents) of having a small, soft, loving black dog coming in for visits.

A.M.Beck & N.M.Meyers (1996) Health enhancement and companion animal ownership. Annual Review of Public Health 17: 247-257

J.Jorgenson (1997) Therapeutic use of companion animals in health care. Journal of Nursing Scholarship 29(3): 249-254

M.O’Haire (2009) The benefits of companion animals for human mental and physical health. 2009 RSPCA Australia Scientific Seminar