They say that a dog is a man’s best friend (although asking one to be a godparent is “weird”, apparently). However, an increasing body of evidence suggests that furry companionship is not merely an enjoyable, if expensive, experience, but may in fact influence human health.
It is quite probable that you have come across the concept of the “therapet”. In the last few years, a variety of universities, retirement homes and hospitals have begun bringing small fluffy animals in for their collective inmates to stroke and interact with. This therapy comes in a variety of flavours; puppy is popular, although others, such as kittens, have their followers; porcupine has not proven successful.
It is tempting to dismiss pet therapy as a fad, chiming too strongly of the cat café and reiki for cats. Au contraire: pet therapy may actually be an excellent model for the application of alternative therapies. The use of animals as support is probably as ancient as domestication, and certainly several centuries old; the Quakers established a retreat in York specifically supplying such therapy in 1791. Animals were being used as companions for psychiatric patients in the USA by the early 20th century (although the treatment of psychiatric patients in the USA at the time is a whole other issue).
The formalisation of the idea in a scientific therapy is a product of the 1960s. Work by Levinson posited pets as useful intermediates in child psychotherapy, allowing inhibited patient to form a bond, promoting feelings of security, which can be extend to more a positive relationship with the therapist. By the 1980s, descriptive papers had transitioned to objective analyses, showing that patients with high blood pressure showed a positive response to be allowed to pet their dog (not a euphemism – that probably doesn’t decrease blood pressure), and that patients discharged after an attack of angina showed a higher one-year rate of survival if they had a pet.
The evidence for pet therapy as a treatment is extensive and growing; only this month a statement from the American Heart Association proclaimed “pet ownership… is probably associated with a decreased risk of heart disease”. This is somewhat unsurprising, especially as the ownership in question was quite weighted towards dog ownership, which comes with an obligation for long walks, occasional wrestles over sticks, and the need to bellow “JESUS CHRIST, FENTON!” All in all, although not conclusive, there is good evidence to suggest that pet ownership has a positive effect on health, and that this may be mediated by a reduction in stress.