Pets can make our lives happy and healthy

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While much of my focus on healthy homes centres on the environmental aspects of a healthy home, it is indeed the people and animals we share our living spaces that can play such a huge role in our mental and physical wellbeing.   I’ve learned first-hand in recent years what a significant role pets in the home can play in supporting my own health and wellbeing.

Last week our family sadly said goodbye to one of our two treasured, furry, four-legged friends, Banjo. It all happened very quickly and not having grown up with dogs, I was quite unprepared and taken aback by how emotional I was and how devastating this was for everyone in our family. I felt silly for being so emotional about the loss of a dog, and admittedly it feels a little strange sitting here typing a tribute to a pet, but what pleasantly surprised me is how much everyone I have spoken to understands and appreciates the role that our pets play in our home and family lives.

Little Banjo certainly played a very important part in keeping me mentally and physically strong during some particularly difficult times in my life, and also taught me a lot.

For the first five years of Banjo’s life I didn’t show him much affection (much to the disappointment of his Dad – and the man I consider mine, David), instead favouring Mum’s dog Scout, who is much better behaved, and openly seeks affection.  But two years ago when I returned to Melbourne for six months as I navigated my way through the challenges of Chronic Inflammatory Response Syndrome, I lived with Banjo and David.  I looked after Banj while David was away and he kept me company for a few weeks on the farm, where I escaped to soak up the fresh country air.

Through spending time with the little Banj I was able to see past his cheeky nature and when I started showing him the love he deserved, he gave it back in spades. It made me think, how often do I write people off because I think they’re a certain way, without ever really taking the chance to get to know them? And I bet there’s a lot of humans that desperately need love and affection but aren’t shown it because they don’t openly invite it.

Banjo’s cheeky nature made me laugh and his affection lifted my spirits when everything else seemed way too hard.  He kept me motivated to get up and watch the sunrise on winter mornings, to keep my body moving throughout the day, and to go outside at the end of the day and venture to different places to appreciate the sun set, even when I wasn’t feeling great. He made my working from home days fun, and he showed me the incredible power of having someone other than ourselves to look after when the going gets tough.

The last time I saw the little fella a few weeks ago in Melbourne,  I had him sleep in my bed (after cuddles with Scout, of course) to give me some much needed comfort as I faced an excruciating wait for the results of a biopsy. We had a lie-in and lots of cuddles on the morning of my results and I was surprised at how upbeat I felt… until I got in the car, leaving him at home, and burst into tears, realising how much he had kept strong.

Little did we know then that the thing I most feared for myself was this little fella’s reality, not mine. As I celebrated my 35th birthday and being 5 years cancer free a few weeks later in Sydney, my family in Melbourne found out he had cancer, and last week had to tearfully send him to a better place, at age 7.

Life works in mysterious ways doesn’t it?  I’m so glad we didn’t know this then, because it would have been too much. And I have the most beautiful memory of my last day with the Banj – we went for a joyful Sunday morning family outing to Port Melbourne beach (how much more fun are family outings when there are doggies to join the fun?).

They say you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone but I’m glad to say that in this case it wasn’t so, I truly appreciated every last moment with the Banj, when he was in his element.  He may not have been here for a long time but he sure did have a good one.

In celebration of little Banj and the joy he brought to our family, and all the pets who play such a role in the wellbeing of their owners, I wanted to share a very special contribution this week from my Aunty, Deirdre Moss, who was executive director of SPCA (Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) Singapore for many years (and also voted by Readers Digest as the eighth most trusted person in Singapore – can you tell I’m a proud niece?

I’ve talked about the soppy aspects of pets and the joy they bring to our lives (and potentially lost a few non-doggy people along the way!).  Here are Deirdre’s expert insights into exactly how pets can improve the health of their owners – the research is well documented:

More than 60 per cent of the population in the U.S. and Australia own a pet. It is a well-established fact that keeping a pet at home can be beneficial for us – both from a health1 and happiness perspective.  This is hardly surprising in that numerous instances exist where research has been conducted, and where animals universally have been shown to provide therapeutic benefits both health wise and psychologically. Pets in the home for example give us purpose, and that feel good element in our daily life.   Lowering blood pressure and reducing stress levels, staving off depression, helping people recover faster from an illness, keeping us active, aiding in our social relationships with others, keeping us from feeling lonely2 – these are just some of the widely documented benefits that come with owning a household pet.  Playing with a pet can also lead to the release of hormones, like serotonin and dopamine, which helps a person to stay composed and relaxed.

Allen R. McConnell Ph.D. (author of The Social Self), says in his blog3 – “Friends with Benefits: Pets make us Happier, Healthier” (July 11, 2011) – that in several studies carried out in their research lab, it was evident that pets become as much a part of self as many family members, which undoubtedly, contributes to their power in promoting health and happiness”.

Dogs in particular, are known to be man’s best friend – mainly because of their boundless capacity for attachment, unconditional love and loyalty to their human companions. They not only communicate with us through body language and sounds, but can also be excellent mood readers, sensing when we need that quiet time. For those that dread exercise, our canine friends can motivate us into regular workouts. And if you’re not into having a dog, choices abound. Cats although quite independent, can be ideal companions as well – or, even having an aquarium and watching fish is said to have a calming effect on us.

As much as we must be conscious of the existence of allergies that can affect us when a pet is in the home, the outlook today by certain researchers, is that having a dog in the home can actually increase a child’s resistance to allergies4, in addition to helping with a child’s development.

Overall, pets are known to not only aid us mentally and physically, but from a social standpoint as well. They help us connect us with others.

A word of caution though – in our quest to lead happy and healthy lives with the help of an animal companion in our home, one has to consider their own circumstances at the outset, so that they can provide the best home possible for the new addition. Pets are a lifetime commitment – when you own one, it should be for the rest of the pet’s life. Being a responsible owner is a must– in sickness and in health, not unlike a marriage of sorts – but the benefits far outweigh the negatives, if you are fully prepared and have the time to look after them. – Deirdre Moss, 2 January 2017.

 

 

 

References –1 https://link.springer.com/article/10.1023/A:1006892908532

2https://www.racgp.org.au/afp/2012/june/the-pet-effect/

3https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-social-self/201107/friends-benefits-pets-make-us-happier-healthier

4https://www.pediatrics.wisc.edu/featured-stories/allergies

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Zara is founder and editor of Oh My Goodness. A certified holistic health coach, National Breast Cancer Foundation speaker and Bupa health influencer award finalist, Zara is passionate about making it as easy and fun for people to lead a healthy lifestyle. She's appeared on The Project and Today Show; her recipes have been featured on I Quit Sugar, Sport Luxe, and Show and Tell Online; and she's a regular contributor to Medibank's Be. Magazine and Fairfax health online.

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