Pets Play a Part
Yesterday was one of those days you feel you’ve been stamped flat as a pancake, peeled off the floor, rolled into a ball, and then stamped on again. Trying to get through a huge crisis while suffering neck and spasm, preparing for a speech and trying to get through a workout without irritating an injury isn’t fun. On top of that, a hundred and one other gremlins had apparently decided that my day needed a bit more spice and were giving it to me… in spades.
To sum it up, I was having a bad day, in a bad state, thinking some very bad thoughts (and words).
Then, something cut through this negative strangle – the plaintiff mewling reminding me that it was time for a feed… for Sesame.
And when I went to feed her, I couldn’t help but smile because it was an instant pattern interrupt, a potent mood shift to see her innocent, cute and desperate face looking at me with a mixture of hope, ingratiation and resentment.
That got me thinking… pets can really enrich your Life.
A Furry Friend
I live alone, and sometimes when you come home late at night it can be a bit of a downer. It’s quiet, it’s lonely, and it’s cold. Not so when you have a little friend to greet you.
Sesame was a little kitten when I rescued her about seven years ago. There she was, mewling and starving, on the steps of an HDB block, looking desperate and scared. As soon as I saw her I fell in love with her and I ran from nearby shop to shop, begging for a box, all the while praying she’d still be there. About ten minutes later I returned and after some frantic searching, finally found her again!
This is the creature…
The strange thing is, soon as she saw the box, she recoiled in fear. And we surmised later that she had probably been abandoned by someone who put her in a box, carried her to a distant location, then tumbled her out of it.
The process of developing a relationship and building trust is a long one, requiring patience and effort, just as it does with any other relationship. The challenge is magnified because of the language barrier. But in time, she grew to trust me, even though I treat her like a dog! We rough and tumble, she sits when I give the command, and she waits (reluctantly) and eats only when I clink her metal food bowl. Still, like a cat, she owns everything.
Since her rescue, she has ever been my companion. Through the ups and downs over the last seven years, she’s been one of the fixed points in my Life. Having a vulnerable living thing to come home to, love and care for adds another dimension to just living and striving for yourself.
One of the greatest additions Sesame’s arrival made to my Life was an increase in laughter. She is so incredibly cute she can generate that response even just sitting down. Cats are so curious and I laugh at all the unthinkable situations Sesame can get herself into. When someone in your Life can make you laugh for every action, no matter how innocent or ordinary, you have a very special bond.
And it got me thinking. There are many joys and benefits of a pet in your Life. While the ones that are intelligent and warm, like cats and dogs, provide the most interactive fun, many of these benefits apply equally to fish, and who knows, to a lesser extent, even bugs and ants.
Here are 5 ways I think caring, loving, and having an animal in your Life can really add to it.
How Pets Add to Our Lives
1. Caring Companionship
It’s great to have someone at home to spend time with, and pets do something few humans do…. They make your return home each night a major celebration. At the end of a hard day’s work, with stressful situations and interactions, it’s an amazing feeling to be welcomed home every single day with excitement, being fawned on with happiness at your touch (and ahem… perhaps impending dinner too).
Pets are especially valuable companions for people who are loners, a little anti-social or at a later stage when social circles shrink as people get older. They are a great source of comfort when you’re down and a great source of amusement and joy when you’re playing. They are cute too, and that adds lots of laughter and smiles to your day, releasing plenty of happy endorphins!
Animals can even widen your social circle. It takes certain qualities to be a responsible pet owner, and keeping pets is one way to meet like-minded individuals, either out on walks or special interest groups. Pets are a favourite for conversation and potential basis for interaction with people you might never meet otherwise.
But it goes both ways. Caring for a pet entails responsibility for the well-being of another. You are responsible for a living creature that is in many ways, entirely dependent on you – for safety, feeding, medical care, love and commitment. Indeed, having pets at home is one way to teach your children to become more nurturing, a valuable trait they will carry into adulthood and the relationships they will develop with people.
According to Dr Gail Melson, author of Why the Wild Things Are: Animals in the Lives of Children, people don’t become nurturing just because they were nurtured as children. Like any skill, they need to develop it through practice, and pets are a good learning opportunity. You simply cannot be a responsible pet owner without developing caring and nurturing qualities. Self-centred people don’t make good pet owners.
2. Promotes Physical Health and Improves Mood
If you haven’t exercised since leaving school or National Service, keeping a pet maybe the only exercise you’ll get. After all, when you take a dog out for a walk, it sometimes feels like your dog is walking you, not the other way round. Playing with and chasing your kitty around involves not just stamina but dexterity and balance!
Pets are the source of laughter, which does burn some calories. A trial by Buchowski et al (2007) concluded that genuine laughter can increase energy expenditure by 10-20%, and if done for 10-15min a day, could increase calorie expenditure by up to 40kcal. That’s one finger of a kit kat wafer bar…but it’s a contribution!
Pet ownership has been shown to reduce stress and blood pressure. For example, Allen et al (2001) conducted a study in which 48 stockbrokers (you seldom get higher stress than that) were randomized to either a control group taking only Lisinopril and an experimental group taking Lisinopril and assigned a pet. What they found was while Lisinopril lowered blood pressure at rest, pet ownership lowered blood pressure in response to mental stress. This means that if you’re currently in a stressful situation, generally experience lots of stress, and have high blood pressure exacerbated by stress, a pet could be just the added dose of medication you need.
3. Mood Booster
In addition to health benefits, animals just improve your mood. Anyone with a pet – especially an intelligent animal like a cat or dog – can attest to the fact that whatever your pet gets up to, there is no end of laughter to their antics.
We now know that laughter is good medicine. It is still not clear if laughing actually has a physiological effect, but there probably is some since it creates physiological responses like transient increased heart rate and blood pressure, deeper breathing leading to greater oxygen uptake, and contraction and stretch of various muscles involved in the process.
4. Provides Structure and Fixed Point
Life can test you and it’s easy to get mired in the firefighting and lose touch with the bigger picture. Hence I have clients who work non-stop in their offices and forget about everything else. Or I know friends who have been so tired or depressed that all they do is sleep their free time and weekends away.
A pet in your Life gives you a fixed point outside of yourself and your immediate concerns to focus on. It provides a pattern interrupt that disrupts any destructive, depressing or distressing train you might be on, because you simply have the responsibility of caring about another living thing. You cannot put it off like you put off an outing with your kids or a date with your wife. That in turn grounds you in a different reality so you don’t lose yourself.
You also develop time management skills which benefit other aspects of your Life. You simply have to make time to feed, play, schedule vet visits, take your dog out for walks, perform water and tank maintenance for the fish. When you are forced to schedule your time you tend to be more organized, and as you free up your time you realize where the time sinks and energy leaks are. After fixing them you’ll find you have lots more time to do other useful, life-changing activity… such as exercise perhaps?
5. Lessons on Love
Finally, having animals also teaches you about Life and love, often unconditional love.
I remember my dog Max. We brought him home as a tiny pup, and he was the size of half my 14 year hand. He made these little squealing noises as, naked, he would crawl about the floor looking like a little worm. We would check up on him every night in his box, to tend to his needs, and make sure that he was okay. Gradually he grew up, getting stronger and livelier by the day.
He became one of the highlights of our Lives. Coming home every day from school to have this happy, skippy, genuinely delighted dog jumping up and down isn’t something many people can enjoy. Other people at home may be tired, and maybe a little cranky. But this little thing charging out madly and skipping and fussing over you, making much ado about the nothings of shoe and sock removal was an instant rejuvenator.
Love means being tolerant and understanding, and not having everything your way. Pets certainly teach you that! For example, pets shed. A lot. You will have to clear fur off sofas, beds, and cleaning your corners and cable areas will be a lot more difficult. They will scratch your leather upholstery and possibly mangle your shoes. They can turn nasty when scared, sick or threatened, and I have the scratches from Sesame to prove it.
And there is a communication barrier, forcing you to rely on other cues like body language, or empathy, in order for you to understand what each other is feeling. Max, Sesame and almost every other furry pet I know of can actually feel guilt and upset when they know they’ve overstepped your boundaries.
But like the best relationships you learn to accept and forgive, acknowledge and overlook, and reach a happy equilibrium.
6. Lessons About Life
Alas… as the years wore on, and milestones came and went from National Service to an entire 5 year absence abroad to get my degree, there came a point in time when Max started to deteriorate. He became cranky, snappy, and aggressive. His movement got slower, his breathing more labored, and finally to put him out of the final throes of heart disease we had to take the necessary step. I will never forget that as the day when the whole family cried. And many of my thoughts were of regret – of walks not taken, hugs not given, and too many a quick tempered word of rebuke.
After Max we never did get a second dog. I don’t know what our various reasons were, and I never asked. But if I were to guess, I think another part would be a fear of going through the same process of loss and grief. And I know that is a deal-breaker for many people contemplating getting a pet they will become emotionally attached to.
See that’s the thing. We live longer than these animals who give us their trust, their love, and when it really comes down to it, their Lives. And so we experience an entire Life cycle and have to take everything that comes with it:
- We experience a mixture of hope, joy, and apprehension when you don’t know if a tiny frail baby will survive
- We experience the joys and growing possibilities of companionships and play as they mature and become more and more a part of your Life
- We experience the sadness as they enter the dawn of their years, deteriorating physically and mentally.
- And finally, we experience the anguish of their passing and the regrets of what we did or did not do when they still lived.
They teach us about Life, and they teach us about love – receiving it and giving it. And they give us a second chance even in their passing: to reflect on lessons to be learnt about ourselves, and how we can apply it to the other living things we love lest it, too, might be too late.
Sesame is now around eight years old. In cat years, that’s about 50. Thereafter for every two human years she will gain ten cat years. I’m well aware of that. But I cannot for fear of what the end will be, forsake the opportunities and experiences of what the present can bring. Right now, I am enjoying her companionship and I am enjoying loving her. I am grateful that I have someone to come home to and who doesn’t judge me for who I am and what I do. And when I see her curled up in a little ball of fur, sometimes falling asleep next to me, it makes me happy to have this little companion who gives me amusement, delight, companionship, and trust.
1. Pet Ownership, but Not ACE Inhibitor Therapy, Blunts Home Blood Pressure Responses to Mental Stress. Allen K, Shykoff BE, Izzo Jr JL. Hypertension 2001; 38: 815-820
2. Energy expenditure of genuine laughter. Buchowski MS1, Majchrzak KM, Blomquist K, Chen KY, Byrne DW, Bachorowski JA. Int J Obes (Lond). 2007 Jan;31(1):131-7. Epub 2006 May 2.
3. Melson GF (2005) Why the Wild Things Are: Animals in the Lives of Children. Harvard University Press Release date: April 14, 2005 | ISBN-10: 0674017528 | ISBN-13: 978-0674017528
4. How Cats Age: A “Cats Years Calculator”