Helping your pet cope with a serious health complaint can end up being both an emotional and financial drain. Yet seeing the positive effect of its treatment is incredibly rewarding and makes the continued expense every bit worthwhile. This is our conscious contribution to our pets, yet in times of need, without knowing it themselves, it is our pets that really look after us!

Research being carried out across America focuses on the human benefits of owning a pet, and suggests it is actually our four-legged friends that offer the most ongoing health benefit, both on a physical and emotional level. Although research centres primarily on the positive effects of owning a dog, there is strong evidence to suggest that any pet, from a cat to a bird or a rabbit, provides a degree of emotional healing.

Besides helping with stress disorders, depression and anxiety, owning a pet is also believed to help lower blood pressure and cholesterol, reducing the risk of serious health conditions like heart attacks and strokes. Incredibly, some pet owners have reported that their animals alter their behaviours when their health is at risk e.g. barking when the owner's blood sugars drop or when an epileptic fit is imminent.

In fact, just like guide dog training, organisations have set up to specifically train dogs for diabetic owners, recognising their inherent value as assistance animals; these dogs are able to detect subtle changes such as dropping glucose levels and respond to them quickly, whilst proving great companions for individuals that are isolated through the condition.

Decreased stress is another reported benefit, with pet owners feeling much more relaxed in the company of their animals - more so, in fact, than either friends or family members. Surprised? A study carried out at State University of New York in Buffalo found that feelings of acute stress were observed less in those that had their pets accompany them during a stressful task than those in the presence of familiar figures.

Familiarity is deemed important in the treatment of addicts, and studies have examined the effect of permitting pets into rehabilitation centres to be with their owners. Lowered blood pressure has been a positive result, with the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention recognising that owning a dog can significantly reduce feelings of stress, anxiety and related high blood pressure.

This is supported by a study into stress at the Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, University of California that found that Alzheimer’s patients benefitted dramatically from the presence of a pet in the home, suffering fewer emotional outbursts and anxious spells.

The benefit of pet ownership to emotional disorders like anxiety, low self-esteem and depression is well documented. Many sufferers have described the responsibility and purpose they feel in caring for a pet, and the unconditional love given to them helps boost confidence, inner contentment and self-esteem. Having a companion pet also removes feelings of isolation and loneliness, thus alleviating a key cause of depression.

To help counter post-traumatic stress in soldiers returning from conflict, the Walter Reed Army Medical Centre has been using dogs in animal-assisted therapy, which supports the benefits of canine companionship in recovery. Easing the physical, emotional and psychological pain of warfare through canine friendship has been proven as one of the most effective courses of treatment.

It seems the value of animals knows no bounds and research is constantly being carried out to expand our understanding of how our pets can support us by improving mood and easing pain. For even more benefits of owning a pet, check out Part 2 of our article! If you have any comments or questions, feel free to email me directly: [email protected]

Written by: Hannah