"If having a soul means being able to feel love and loyalty and gratitude, then animals are better off than a lot of humans." James Herriot
This morning I'm on my own. And yet, of course, I'm not on my own. My partner in crime, my son Philip, is away for a few days, and the house seems empty without him. But instead of being woken by "Good morning mummy", I was woken by one of the cats jumping on the bed and curling up on me, and the dog scrabbling at my hand for attention. They both joined me for my morning meditation, keeping me company and willingly offering their love in return for simply being near me.
I was lucky enough to grow up with animals, and I've never known a life without them. My mum was pony mad, and persuaded her parents to let her have a pony, then an ex-racehorse. My family has had horses since I was three years old. We bred Jack Russell dogs, and there always seemed to be some cats around as well, rescued I think. When I lived with Henry, we had goats, sheep, cows, pigs, and goodness knows what else, as well as the dogs and horses.
My family right now consists of two rescued farm kittens, Kitty and Fluffy. It was their first birthday a couple of days ago, although my son Philip insists they're three years old now in terms of cat years, and he says they are now cats, not kittens. Lily, our Miniature Schnauzer, is seven years old, and the most loving dog I've ever met. It was important to me that Philip grew up with animals around him. He's learned to love and care for them from an early age, and these are skills he'll carry with him throughout life.
Not everyone is able to, or wants to, have cats, dogs or horses. How about fish, or rabbits, guinea pigs, or hamsters? Philip asked me a while ago if we could get a flying sugar glider, which I'd never heard of, but it seems they are becoming popular pets (the answer was no, by the way, our family is quite big enough at the moment). Having to care for another being forces you to get out of bed in the morning, makes you pay attention to someone other than yourself. It can be a reminder of the bigger picture, that there is so much more to this Earth than just human beings.
Then of course there's the research around happiness and pets. A survey of 2,000 people in 2018 found that owning a pet increased your likelihood of being happy and successful. Interestingly, it also found that owing a pet meant you were less likely to have paid off your mortgage or to retire early - oh well!
A literature review in the journal 'Frontiers in Psychology' published in 2015 found that animal assisted intervention "... may provide promise as a complementary treatment option for trauma", but as always more and better research is needed. A systematic review in 2016 in the journal 'Plos One' suggested that "Reading to a dog may have a beneficial effect on a number of behavioural processes which contribute to a positive effect on the environment in which reading is practiced, leading to improved reading performance". Again, more research needed.
A 2013 open access article in the journal Plos One reported on videos of 91 children during a ten minute free play session with two guinea pigs, and during a ten minute free play session with toys. They concluded that "Participants with autism spectrum disorder demonstrated more social approach behaviours (including talking, looking at faces, and making tactile contact) and received more social approaches from their peers in the presence of animals compared to toys. They also displayed more prosocial behaviours and positive affect (i.e., smiling and laughing) as well as less self-focused behaviours and negative affect (i.e., frowning, crying, and whining) in the presence of animals compared to toys." Basically, playing around the guinea pigs as opposed to the toys led to happier, more interactive kids.
Even insects could make a difference. I remember having a stick insect when I was a kid, probably as some kind of school project. A 2018 study in the journal Gerontology looked at the effect of caring for crickets on the mental health of the over 65's attending a community day centre. Half of the 94 adults were given five crickets in a cage to look after for eight weeks, with a detailed instruction manual. The study concluded that "Caring for insects, which is cost-effective and safe, was associated with a small to medium positive effect on depression and cognitive function in community-dwelling elderly people.".
Even if you can't have, or don't want to have, your own pets, there are many ways to get involved with animals. You can volunteer at your local rescue, or visit a cat or dog cafe, for example.
Do you have animals in your life? If you do, I bet you can't imagine life without them. If you don't, I highly recommend boosting your levels of happiness just a little by finding a way of interacting with animals, and the science clearly backs me up on this one.
© Sue Palmer, The Horse Physio, 2021
Treating your horse with care, connection, curiosity and compassion