Whether furry, finned, feathered, hoofed or scaly, it comes as no surprise to animal lovers that the non-human beings we treasure and share our lives with are good for us physically and mentally. They give our lives purpose, ease our stress, and make us feel loved like few humans can. If you’ve ever sat with a purring cat in your lap, hypnotically watched swimming fish or were kept company by your dog as you go about your chores, you know how calming and stabilizing being in an animal’s presence can be. Children with pets in the house from infancy, and even better while in utero, are often healthier and less susceptible to allergies than pet-less children. Dog guardians enjoy the many health perks of daily walks. Even when the pet isn’t yours, you can still benefit from ‘animal medicine’. Patients lucky enough to receive canine or feline visitors often experience lower blood pressure, report less pain, and heal faster, probably due to the relaxation effects and feelings of comfort imparted by their furry therapists.
As important as the physical benefits of animal friends are, the emotional and mental benefits may be even more important. Elderly nursing home residents experience better quality of life and longer lives when they have an animal (or even a plant!) to care for. Caring for a pet gives your life meaning and purpose. When those friends are adopted from difficult situations or shelters, the bond between you is even more special. The feeling you get from knowing you saved someone and gave him or her a better life warms your heart for the duration.
There seems to be an innate yearning within us for a connection with animals and nature, that when honored, feeds our souls. I think of our animal friends as being our bridge to nature and the divine. From early recorded history we see examples of animals living among humans. Dogs have become so domesticated that brain scans show they favor their humans even more than their dog friends. When I was visiting in a shelter room with 50 cats, they were largely ignoring each other, but several sat on or next to me, purring as they lounged.
Unconditional love and acceptance rank among our animal companions’ greatest gifts to us. Who else, despite our imperfections and shortcomings, can make us feel like the most special people on the planet? Who else is so loyal, so trusting, and non-judgmental. They make us feel emotionally safe. That in itself feeds and heals to the depths of our souls. You don’t have to be a dog, cat, or horse lover to experience this feeling. I’ve seen birds snuggling with their people, rodents and lizards enjoying gentle strokes, and fish coming to the glass to say hello. One of my favorite animal friends was an upside down catfish that swam out from under his rock to say hello whenever I peered in the tank.
Speaking of unconditional love, animals give it and teach it, along with many other important life lessons, as I learned from my German Shepherd. One day, I was getting ready to go for a run, and Vara was excited to join me as usual. In my teenage wisdom, I tried to make her stay home for the first leg of the run, so as not to tire her out. She insisted on following and I sharply scolded her. She hung her head and obeyed as I, feeling guilty, ran off. On the second pass I said, “Okay, come on.” She joyously jumped up with no lingering evidence of disappointment or judgment of my misdeed. It was at that moment that the words of the famous love chapter, 1 Corinthians 13, came to life. I understood that she embodied the qualities of kindness, forbearance, and not keeping a record of wrongs as spoken of in that passage. To this day, her example still inspires me to evolve into the loving being she naturally was.
One surprising benefit of having pets is how it betters our relationships with other. Beloved pets give us something to talk about and bond over. For empty nesters, they take the place of children. Being out with an animal friend makes you more approachable and opens doors to conversations and friendships with people you’d never otherwise talk to.
A little advice: When you are ready to open your heart and home to a new friend, do your homework first. Find a match who will best fit your personality, environment, and lifestyle. If a long lifetime commitment isn’t for you, consider fostering or adopting a pet with a shorter life span. Do you like animals but can’t have pets? You can still enjoy their benefits by being a great pet ‘aunt or uncle’ and by volunteering at your local shelter.
Just like with fellow humans, the more you nurture the relationship with your animal companion, the greater the rewards you will both enjoy.
Bio: Val Silver is a teacher, holistic healer, animal advocate and lifelong dog lover. She is the author of Rescue Me: Tales of Rescuing the Dogs Who Became Our Teachers, Healers, and Always Faithful Friends.
Rescue Me Blog: http://tapinfinity.com
Holistic Healing Website: http://www.holisitc-mindbody-healing.com