A day doesn’t go by when we don’t hear stories about how dogs and other animals have protected and even saved the lives of their owners. Some do so by waking people to warn them of a fire or keep children warm who have wandered away in freezing weather. Some dedicated canines stand watch over the graves of their owners. Others, like Rex, protect children from home intruders, even after being horribly injured.
Beyond protection, dogs, cats, horses, goats, birds, pigs, and other animals have been recognized for their ability to support and promote human health. As more and more people turn to animals for their physical, emotional, and social needs, study findings seem to provide scientific proof to support this trend.
How are animals protecting us and also benefiting our health? Here are some examples.
Animals as protection
Dogs may be the first animal you think of when talking about protection, but there are several others who perform this important job as well. Let’s start with dogs.
Canine protection. Therapy and assistance animals, typically dogs, protect us from harming ourselves or when we find ourselves in dangerous situations. Seeing eye dogs and dogs trained to assist those who are deaf, have epilepsy, neurological disorders, or other medical conditions that can result in physical harm are examples of how people have found ways to utilize animals for protection.
Having a dog in your home or business is considered to be a deterrent to crime and a source of protection. According to the National Council on Home Safety and Security, having a large dog is a “very common deterrent….The bigger the dog, the less likely a thief is to attempt a break-in.”
Donkeys, llamas, and alpacas. If you have a farm or live in a situation where having such animals on your property is allowed, you might want to consider sharing your space with donkeys, llamas, or alpacas. All can offer protection from predators such as fox, coyotes, wolves, and other wild creatures that may want to harm your livestock or other animals.
Dolphins. Although there is some debate about the validity of the following statement, dolphins have been known to protect humans when they have been stranded at sea or have been in other precarious situations in the water. Yet few can dispute the valuable protection dolphins have offered during war, however. In 2011, CNN reported that “Dolphins most recently were deployed in the Iraq war, performing mine detection and clearance operations in the Persian Gulf to ensure safe passage for humanitarian ships delivering aid.”
Animals provide health benefits
A recent review of how animals impact human health reveals some commonly held as well as some surprising findings. For example:
Turtles and rabbits. In one study, 58 adults were placed in a stressful situation and subsequently assigned to one of five groups: control group or asked to pet a rabbit, a turtle, a toy rabbit, or a toy turtle. Stroking the toys had no impact on anxiety or stress while petting the live animals did. The effect was seen regardless of whether the participants said they liked animals.
Insects. Although we don’t usually pet insects, caring for them can have a calming and uplifting effect on people. At least it did for a group of elderly adults who were given five crickets in a cage. After eight weeks, those who cared for the insects showed a small to medium positive effect on depression and cognitive function when compared with their peers who did not have the insects.
Horses. The number of equine-therapy opportunities keep increasing, and that’s because these animals are hypersensitive and can pick up on emotional trauma. That’s what makes working with horses so therapeutic, especially for those with autism, ADHD, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other traumas.
Fish. Watching fish in an aquarium can be therapeutic for Alzheimer’s patients. Animals can focus people’s attention. When people at an Alzheimer’s-disease facility dined in front of aquariums with brightly colored fish, they ate more, got better nutrition and were less prone to pacing. They were also more attentive and less lethargic.
Dogs. The list of health benefits associated with dogs is long. For starters, according to a November 2017 report in Scientific Reports, people who own dogs live longer and have better health than people who don’t own dogs. Dog parents tend to walk more, are less likely to get heart disease, and have lower blood pressure than people without dogs.
People who have pets, and especially dogs and cats, are usually less lonely, happier, and more trusting than those who don’t have pets. According to pet researcher Allen R. McConnell, PhD, professor of psychology at Miami University, pets can make “you feel like you have greater control of your life.”
For children, research has shown that those who have difficulty reading show fewer symptoms of anxiety when they read to a dog. Hundreds of cities have programs in which kids can read to dogs, often held in libraries and other public venues.
Children with autism who have a specially trained therapy dog often display more social behaviors, experience less anxiety, and do better in school. Even the presence of a dog that has not been specially trained can reduce stress and anxiety in kids on the autism spectrum and their carers.
Animals are an integral part of our lives. Their contributions are physical, emotional, social, and spiritual and can have a positive impact on people of all ages, circumstances, and walks of life.
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