imageDo you remember the scene in the movie Cast Away when Chuck Noland (played by Tom Hanks) watches his companion of four years drift away in the ocean and cries "Wilson! WILSON! I'm sorry Wilson, I'm so sorry..."? I sobbed during this scene in the movie, and then I left the theatre baffled at myself for crying over his pet volleyball! But, as any devoted pet owner will tell you: furry, scaly, and leathery friends alike often become members of the family. It's not so much a question of whether pets bring joy into our lives, but rather how...

Pets make us more social. Pets have personalities and provide companionship to our highly social human species. They force us to socialize when they greet us in the doorway, engage us in play, or look for praise. And pets also make us more social by giving us opportunities to socialize with other pet owners and meet new people.

Pets improve our health. Pets may actually improve our physical health, although it is not entirely clear why. One hypothesis is that people who have pets that need to be walked end up exercising more. There is also some medical evidence that people with pets have lower blood pressure and cholesterol and see the doctor less often than their non-pet owning counterparts.

Pets soothe us. An interesting experimental study showed that women given a stressful mental exercise were soothed more by a pet than the presence of a friend. Why? Even our friends make judgments about us. Pets provide stress relief through physical contact and unconditional positive regard. In addition, pets can also provide relief from feelings of loneliness, as cited by several Previous PT Bloggers.

Pets promote empathy and bonding. Children with strong bonds to pets score higher on empathy scales than children without pets. Pets also cultivate a nurturing spirit from the adults who take care of them. We learn to empathize with our pets' feelings, signs of hunger, et cetera, because they are not able to speak for themselves. A previous PT Blogger cited a 2003 study in the Veterinary Journal that showed how the act of touching or petting an animal releases the mammalian hormone Oxytocin. This hormone increases feelings of bonding, sparking a similar connection as with a child, family member, or close friend.

For those of you who do not currently have pets, consider the benefits of their companionship through ownership, pet-sitting, or playing with other people's pets. Allergic? Scared of bites? As Chuck Noland helped us understand, we can develop strong emotional bonds with pets of many kinds, including plants, lizards, birds, snakes, rodents, and horses, to name a few. If nothing else, then perhaps even an anthropomorphized inanimate object, like Wilson, will suffice!

• Allen, k.M., Blascovich, J., Tomaka, J., & Kelsey, R.M. (1991). Presence of human friends and pet dogs as moderators of autonomic responses to stress in women. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 61, 582 - 580.
• Anderson, W.P., Reid, C.M., & Jennings, G.L. (1992). Pet ownership and risk factors for cardiovascular disease. Medical Journal of Australia, 157, 298 - 301.
• Ascione, F.R. (1992). Enhancing Children's Attitudes About The Humane Treatment of Animals: Generalization to Human-Directed Empathy. Anthrozoos, 5 (3).
• Sable, Pat (1995). Pets, Attachment, and Well-being across the Life Cycle. Social Work, 40 (3), 334-41.
• Siegel, J.M. (1990). Stressful life events and use of physician services among the elderly: the moderating role of pet ownership. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 58, 1081 - 1086.
• Stallones, L., Marx, M.B., Garrity, T.F., & Johnson, T.P. (1990). Pet ownership and attachment in relation to the health of U.S. adults, 21 to 64 years of age. Anthrozoos, 4, 100 - 112.

About the Author

Allison Aboud Holzer, M.A.T., M.F.A., C.P.C.C.

Allison Aboud Holzer, M.A.T., M.F.A., C.P.C.C., coordinates the coaching program for the Emotionally Literate Schools study at Yale University's Health, Emotion & Behavior Lab.

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