Animals enhance our lives in many ways, but physical contact tops the list as being beneficial
Lyssa Alexander | Contributor
Whenever my young daughter sees an animal, all she can focus on is trying to get close and touch it. This desire is nearly universal in small children, but adults also crave physical contact with animals.
How many times have I been to a butterfly garden and seen a father or grandmother stretch out their hand to make a perch. They leave that perch hovering in the air in perfect stillness just hoping that a butterfly will light upon them for a brief moment. We dole out cash to feed the giraffes, we sit motionless for hours while our cat takes a nap, and we make friends with every dog who greets us at the park.
There is something truly special and powerful about that cross-species connection. I feel it strongly myself. The joy of touching and interacting with animals is a big part of what brought me to veterinary medicine in the first place.
The power of the human-animal connection is quite well established. Numerous studies have found supportive evidence for positive mental and physical health benefits from being near animals and touching them.
One study actually showed an increase in immune function in college students just from having them pet a dog for 18 minutes. Touching animals has been associated with better mood, healthier interpersonal interactions, reduced stress, reduced fear and anxiety and improved cardiovascular health.
There is also some evidence that human-animal interactions positively effect pain management, increase trustworthiness, reduce aggression, enhance empathy and improve learning. The mechanism of all these positive benefits is likely related to oxytocin release, though multiple factors are undoubtedly at play. Regardless of the cause, the outcome is striking.
Most people don’t need the science to know that there are huge benefits from touching animals because they have experienced them first hand. For all of these reasons, there are huge numbers of programs dedicated to facilitating human-animal interactions.
Animals are used in educational programs as well as mental and physical rehabilitation programs throughout the world in many creative ways.
My technician, Janella Poch has taken her beagle Monte to numerous retirement homes, children’s reading programs and mental and health rehabilitation centers for years. He has been certified with Therapy Dog International since 2007 and will be receiving an award for “Outstanding Community Service,” Sept. 26 by the Arc of Lucas County. Getting involved in animal learning and therapy programs can be immensely rewarding for pets and owners as well as for care recipients.
Lyssa Alexander | Contributor
Despite the numerous benefits from human-animal interactions, there are also dangers that need to be addressed. Though my daughter wants to touch every animal she sees, it is my job to keep her and the animals safe.
Educating children on the proper way to approach and interact with animals is extremely important. Most children are taught to ask before petting people’s dogs, but our education has to go a step farther. Not only do children have to ask owners if they can pet their dogs, but they have to learn how to recognize if they animal doesn’t want to be touched and how to restrain themselves in the face of these signals.
Various organizations, like Doggone Safe and others are dedicated to dog bite prevention through education.
In addition to bite prevention, children must also be taught about hygiene. The CDC estimates that 70,000 people get salmonella from handling reptiles each year.
Adults could use some education on appropriate animal interactions as well. I was slightly surprised at the lack of situational awareness I observed on a recent outing with a friend.
Her small dog has some anxiety around strangers. During a one-hour period of time on a public street, more than a dozen people tried to reach down to touch her dog without asking permission. Many of them even persisted in approaching the dog when asked not to by my friend or when growled at by the dog.
Though I was somewhat taken aback, I can see how strongly people crave that interaction.
There is a large need for human-animal interactions in society. The benefits of these interactions and of pet ownership are undeniable. However, showing restraint and making mature decisions about how to interact with animals is essential. Making sure our contact with animals remains positive is the best way to keep animals a big part of all of our lives.
So, what’s the key to health and happiness? Snuggle a puppy, pet a bearded dragon, feed a goat, wash your hands and think before you act. Congratulations to Janella and Monte and to everyone who work hard to bring animals to peoples’ lives in positive ways.
Lyssa Alexander, DVM is a veterinarian at All Creatures Animal Clinic, and she treats dogs, cats, exotic and pocket pets. You can follow her on Twitter @AllCreaturesAC.