Bonding is something most humans do without thinking about it. As individuals, we each have our own personality, strengths, flaws and preferences. We tend to gravitate towards other people who share our interests, and as the relationship develops, so does bonding. Most pet owners think of their dog or cat as a member of their family and the connection we share with our pets is unique. But does our special bond with a pet help us form closer relationships with other people? According to science, it does.
Beginning some 10,000 years ago, humans and canines formed a unique pact that benefited both species. We know our early ancestors placed great value in their pets because dogs and cats have been found in burial sites with humans, indicating people felt it was important to give their pet a proper burial. Throughout the many decades of animal domestication, the bonds between humans and our furry friends have made us healthier and happier, and helped us cope with life’s surprises. Pets also help us connect with other people because caring for animals gives us a sense of empathy.
Natural disasters and house fires occur every year. We watched with sadness as the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina unfolded. Researchers conducted studies to find out why many New Orleans residents refused to evacuate to safe shelters, and discovered it was because people didn’t want to leave their pets behind. I didn’t know any of these pet owners, but could relate with the decision they had made. Most pet owners are willing to risk their life to save a pet, according to a 2013 Vanity Fair poll that found 81% of dog owners and 71% of cat owners would go back inside their burning home to save their pet.
When asked to name the benefits that pets provide, common answers include things like unconditional love and acceptance, companionship, laughter, happiness and fun. Pets offer numerous health benefits as well, including reducing stress and anxiety, lowering blood pressure, encouraging us to get more exercise, and helping us cope with pain. Although most of us don’t adopt a dog or cat thinking they might save our life one day, many do just that! Stories abound of hero dogs and hero cats who alerted their owners to fires, gas leaks, venomous snakes, marauding bears, cancer and other dangers. I should think that for all of us, having our life saved by a pet would certainly qualify as an unexpected – but much appreciated – benefit.
A diabetic scientist discovered by accident that his dog was able to detect low blood sugar. The dog alerted him before he suffered a seizure, which led the scientist to form an organization that trains diabetic alert dogs. Another unexpected benefit many pets provide their owner is teaching important life lessons that we didn’t even know we needed to learn, such as how to be more tolerant, patient or trusting of others. Sometimes, pets teach us how to open our hearts just by providing a safe and loving presence. They show us how to slow down, live in the moment and savor even the smallest pleasures life has to offer. All great things to be sure, but not usually things we expect from our pets!
Years ago I experienced an unexpected benefit from a pet that I’ll never forget. It wasn’t even my pet, but it was a great help to me nonetheless. I was renting a country cottage that sat on several acres in Northern California. As a longtime gardener, it was the perfect place for me. I created my own private paradise with a large vegetable patch, a beautiful rose garden and several flower gardens. I built raised beds because the gophers who called this field “home” had no respect for my garden (imagine that!).
The landlord’s house was also on the property, and they had two dogs. The dogs viewed the field as an extension of their territory, and quite often I’d see them patrolling it. I’d also see the small dog furiously digging holes out in the field. Terriers are known to be fond of digging, and Pepper was true to her breed. She never dug holes near my garden though, so her digging didn’t really bother me.
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