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"We have an innate, instinctual bond with animals," explains Dr. Margaret Schneider, Associate Professor of Counselling Psychology at the Ontario Institute of Studies in Education, who specializes in human-animal interaction. Psychiatrists have studied that link for decades and incorporated it into treatment strategies; even the mere presence of an animal in the room can accelerate progress in mental health patients.
Today, it seems the entire animal kingdom serves a therapeutic purpose – horses, birds, dolphins and even alpacas are used in Animal Assisted Therapy, treating a variety of ailments from depression to behavioural disorders to cerebral palsy. Extraordinary animals to be sure, but you shouldn't underestimate your pet at home, either.
Pets keep you moving
Exercise is one of many benefits of pet ownership. While it's not easy to throw a collar on your guinea pig and take him for a stroll, many animals present a great opportunity to increase physical activity levels. Walking, running or playing Frisbee in the park is as beneficial to you as it is necessary for your pet. Whether you're taking your dog on a hike or simply chasing around the hamster ball, it's a step up from couch surfing.
Pet companionship can equal lower blood pressure
Along with being cute and cuddly, pets are known for combating loneliness, lowering blood pressure and increasing socialization in their human counterparts, making them ideal companions for seniors.
They also promote the maintenance of a stable routine in aging owners, and studies have shown that seniors with pets visit the doctor less frequently than those who don't. Volunteer programs have been setup throughout Canada to provide animal visitations to seniors' centres and assisted-living facilities, so those unable to care for a pet can still benefit from the companionship of one.
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Children with pets are at less risk for allergies
And it's not just the elderly who profit from the company of animals; studies suggest that children who are exposed to cats and dogs at an early age are less likely to develop allergies later in life – and not just pet allergies, but common allergies such as dust and ragweed, as well. What's more, children who are raised with two or more pets are less likely to develop asthma and have lower incidences of hyperactivity than those without furry friends.
Children will learn to nurture their pet
Pets are also great for introducing responsibility into a child's life, and in turn boosting their self-esteem. They've proven beneficial to children with learning disabilities and behavioural issues, too. "Some children feel more comfortable around animals than they do adults, because they're non-judgmental. A child struggling with reading will read aloud to a dog, whereas they might not with an adult, or alone," Schneider explains. Research also shows that teaching children to care for a living thing leads them to be more co-operative and sharing, and they develop more well-rounded social skills overall.
Explore your options and lifestyle
But if your hectic lifestyle doesn't allow you to properly care for a higher maintenance pet like a dog or a cat, investing in an aquarium might be the best way for you to reap the mental health benefits of animal-human interaction. They have been studied for their positive effects on sufferers of Alzheimer's disease, hypertension and even patients awaiting dental surgery. If colourful fish can induce a hypnotic-like state in people fearing the drill, imagine what they can do for you after a long day at the office.
But pets aren't for everyone, and it's important to consider that before you rush out and get a cat for your high blood pressure. "There are studies that show decreased levels of anxiety, depression and loneliness in pet owners – but these are people who like animals. There aren't any studies that show what animals do to people who don't," Schneider says.
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