If you are old enough to remember the Lassie movies, you may recall how she (Lassie was really a male, but we didn't know that at the time) could drag someone out of a burning building, and perform other amazing feats for a dog. Today there are real-life "Lassies" coming home with wounded servicemen and women from the wars, contributing to their recovery, and even saving their lives.
Do pets really help, physically and psychologically? There is a lot of evidence that they do; and my friend and colleague, Lynn Michell of the Linen Press in Edinburgh, certainly thinks so. Lynn's novel, "White Lies" is based on her own experiences as a girl in Africa, during the terrifying Mau Mau uprising. It is a chilling story of fear by day and terror by night. In her own bed, she wondered if she would be murdered or mutilated before dawn. It is no small wonder that her fear of the dark and dark places stayed with her well into adulthood. She swears that her dog has cured her. Now she can even take walks at night without fear, in the certain knowledge that he will protect her.
(Lynn's website is www.linenpressbooks.co.uk/)
Recent studies have proven the worth of both dogs and cats in helping people recover from illness. I can relate to that. Two years ago I had pneumonia and was released from the hospital with a suitcase full of pills and instructions to stay in bed as much as possible for a while. Through my malaise over the course of a week, I was aware that my cat rarely left my side. I felt her warm, furry presence tucked up close to me, and was treated to thunderous purring when I talked to her. It was immensely comforting -- and better than chicken soup!
This may be hard to believe, but there was a recent story in the newspaper about a hospital here in San Francisco that bent every rule in the book to allow a woman's dog to accompany her when she went in for surgery. The dog slept in the woman's room, and even accompanied her to the door of the operating room, where he waited patiently until his mistress was wheeled out and taken to intensive care. And yes, he went there, too. The doctors all seemed to be okay with this, and even gave the dog a lot of credit for the woman's rapid recovery. (If you are thinking that this could only happen in San Francisco, you could be right. But maybe other cities ought to try it.)
If we need more evidence of the long-term benefits of having a pet, a new study by a team of psychologists from two universities has shown that the advantages of having a dog or a cat are real and broad. For their research they had 217 people fill out questionnaires designed to determine if people with pets are different, and even better off, compared with those without them. The survey assessed variables such as self-esteem, depression, loneliness, illness, and how people relate to one another. The results are complicated, but their experiments proved that people with pets tended to be less lonely, have higher self-esteem, and be less fearful of relationships. They concluded that a pet was every bit as valuable as a best friend. (Maybe that's why dogs have been called "man's best friend.")
Another study researched the question of whether dogs can read our minds. Not surprisingly it was found that, instead of using mental telepathy, dogs are simply acutely sensitive to humans' cues in predicting their actions. In other words, dogs base their own behavior, like begging for food, on visual signs from humans -- not on some supernatural ability to read minds. The researchers attributed this to a unique combination of environmental and genetic agents, or "nature and nurture," as one psychologist put it, resulting in what may look like an ability to read minds. (I'm relieved to know that, as it might explain why my cat stares at me in that disconcerting way. Now I know that she is just looking for cues as to whether I'm going to put something in her bowl.)
So, are we healthier, and happier, as a result of owning a pet? The best evidence, scientific and otherwise, seems to indicate that we are indeed.