Being a 'crazy pet person' can give you a longer life
22:01 GMT, 10 March 2012
Author Judith Summers pushes her aged King Charles spaniel George around in a buggy, while another dog owner crawled across a frozen river last month to save the family pet after it plunged through the ice.
Company director Malcolm Jarvis, 48, admitted his actions were silly but said he could not just sit back and watch Bentley, a four-year-old Jack Russell, drown.
Even Malcolm’s wife Rachel seemed to think his behaviour was understandable.
Judith Summers and her geriatric dog, George. Her nursing of this ageing pet, who has given 14 years of love and service, seems somehow appropriate
And then there were the dramatic images last month of Australian Nicole Graham risking her own safety by attempting to save her horse Astro from quicksand.
Few people could fail to be moved by the anguish etched on Nicole’s face and her relief when the animal was saved.
These may seem examples of ‘crazy pet people’ but dig deeper and you’ll see that 59-year-old Judith’s dog brought comfort to a grieving household when her husband died in 1998.
Her nursing of this ageing pet, who has given 14 years of love and service, seems somehow appropriate.
Helping a family overcome bereavement is just one way in which animals may benefit us. There are plenty of others.
A lonely child is given a kitten and suddenly he has a friend.
A woman going through a divorce finds solace from walking her dog in a park.
A stressed-out businessman discovers that an aquarium full of fish is a calming antidote to his chaotic world.
There are many claims that pets make us healthier and likely to live longer.
Some sound far-fetched but there are a growing number of studies into how pets affect our health.
Special bond: Judith's dog George helped her deal with her grief after her husband's death in 1998
One last year showed that people with pets tend to have greater self-esteem, are more physically fit, less lonely, less fearful and more extrovert than non-owners.
As a psychotherapist, I understand the impact a pet can have on poor self-esteem. I see many people with this problem: they don’t feel that they matter.
Having a pet who loves you unconditionally and who depends on you is a great way to feel better about yourself.
If you have a pet who needs exercising, there’s a good chance you’ll be fitter than someone who hasn’t the same reason for getting out. You also have a companion who doesn’t criticise you.
Another claim is that pets are good stress-busters and the relationship you have with them can increase quantities of the bonding-hormone oxytocin in the bloodstream, while also decreasing stress hormones such as cortisol.
Being emotionally close to another being, even an animal, is one of life’s richest experiences.
Australian Nicole Graham risked her own safety by attempting to save her horse Astro from quicksand
Writer Alice Peterson, who has rheumatoid arthritis (RA), credits her Lucas terrier Darcy with improving her social life and lifting her spirits.
‘Making friends with other dog-walkers has been a big bonus,’ she says.
‘RA can be a very isolating condition.’
Animals can have a huge impact on our lives even if they’re not our own pets. Horses often have a calming effect on those who are troubled.
Autistic children can improve their powers of communication through riding horses and being encouraged to care for them.
In Scotland, the charity HorseBack UK has shown that equine contact helps reduce the stress of wounded soldiers.
One of the main charities which has harnessed the abilities of animals to bring support to humans is Pets As Therapy.
It has 108 cats and 4,500 dogs and these animals and their owners go into hospices, hospitals, care homes and day-care centres.
Retired dietician Jill Leslie and her dog Watson visit a dementia unit regularly.
She says when she arrives, the residents usually look sad but once they gaze at the dog, they smile and sometimes begin to talk – even if normally they have little conversation.
‘The presence of Watson lights up their day,’ says Jill.
‘When someone who has withdrawn from others starts to open up it’s a heart-leaping moment.’
I had a patient who was prone to severe depression but whenever it struck, she focused her attention on Smiley, the family dog.
‘Even when I was at my most numb with sadness,’ she said once, ‘stroking my pet and feeling his tail wag gave me a connection to life, and helped me to keep going.’
I believe the treatment I gave to her was a real help but I think Smiley helped even more.