Our pets are natural healers that care for us as much as we care for them. They rejuvenate us with their empathy, strengthen our circulation and heart, improve our longevity, and bond with us as members of our family. They also accept us as members of their canine or feline family. They do all of that so easily that we often take their impact on our welfare for granted or fail to really see it. Cherished pets who form these bonds with their human companions will give freely of their love and energy. Unlike us, they do this without any concern for tomorrow, regrets about yesterday, or reservations that hold them back. They just love us completely.
And so we share our lives with them. We treat each of them as our golden child, giving them names and cuddly nicknames that our ancestors never envisioned in their relationship with domesticated animals. Just a couple of generations back, our association with these animals was limited and certainly not intimate. They were beasts of burden and servitude. Cats eliminated rodents (and probably saved us from the Black Death that nearly exterminated civilization). Dogs helped us hunt and were rigged for dragging bundles for us. Horses carried us wherever we wanted to travel and plowed our fields for us, strapped with a heavy yoke. Rabbits were strictly for eating.
In fact, all of our domesticated animals were kept outside and far from the warmth of our homes. Dogs and cats slept in the barn, in a shed, or under the porch. People kept ferrets, hamsters, and rabbits in a hutch in back of the house. Barn conditions for horses, unlike today, were pretty dirty and unpleasant for the most part.
What has changed? It appears that we have. We’ve discovered added dimensions to our relationship with these domesticated animals, now seen as pets. They mean more to us emotionally and spiritually. A new symbiotic relationship shows even physical benefits in terms of our mutual health. Now we recognize that we need each other to achieve wholeness.
Our indoor pets
My first dog, Lady, wasn’t allowed indoors. That was back in the early 1950s. My parents both grew up on farms and came to the city later in life for jobs. They had dogs, cats, horses, and rabbits while growing up on the farm. Their animals, however, never made it indoors with the family. My dog Lady never made it farther than our front porch. If it rained, she stayed on the porch. If it became too cold, she could go into our woodshed if she wanted — not that it was much warmer there. One day when my dad heard something like squirrels or rats in the attic above our front porch, he stuck Lady in that dark enclosure to do a job on them. When she cried, dad got rid of Lady. She was no longer useful.
Just a few years later, attitudes changed in our second home. It was now the late 1950s, and my parents had been city folks for more than ten years by then. My new dog, Teddy, was permitted indoors from time to time. He was allowed indoors to eat or when he was cold, wet, or sick. Teddy was never treated to veterinary checkups or vaccinations, however, and died young of dog distemper, whimpering in my bed. He died during the night, and I found him buried in the backyard.
Even today, people on farms treat their pets differently, keeping a bit more distance from them. As more people leave farm life for the city, though, pets become more a part of the immediate family and share their homes. They share more than common space, too. They come to share our lives and our lifestyle. They sit on our sofas, eat things we cook for them, and sleep on our beds. We include them in family outings, often taking them on rides in the car. We include them in backyard gatherings. We talk to them. We hold them and cuddle them. We say sweet things to them. We make them our confidants and close companions. For many people, they become like children and often take the place of children in childless homes.
Some 83 percent of all U.S. pet owners now refer to themselves as their pet’s “mommy” or “daddy,” according to Michael Lander, CEO of Pet Staff, a large California pet-sitting and dog-walking company that employs 170 people. Lander refers to his own pet Labrador Retriever as “baby.”
We provide tasty, complete, and balanced meals to appeal to our pets’ special tastes. Formulas for puppies and kittens, according to the APPA, improve the health and lengthen the lives of our beloved animal companions.
Some 62 percent of all U.S. cat owners sleep with their felines, according to a Jan. 29, 2011, article in the Los Angeles Times, and 56 percent of all American dog owners sleep with their beloved canines. It’s currently being debated whether that’s a good idea or not, but try to convince these happy pets or their owners not to cuddle at night.
That’s the way a dog or cat treats its family. Cat families cuddle together. Dogs huddle up at night, too. For them, that is instinctual and begins with their litter mates and extends in time to extended family. We become part of that extended family, as they adopt us into their dog world or cat world. That’s why sleeping with us at night seems perfectly ordinary, once your dog or cat feels a certain family intimacy with you.
We used to name our dogs something like Rover or Spot and our cats something like Fluffy. Not so much any more. Lately, we give our pets names like people. In fact, a recent survey of veterinarians by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) listed Max and Sam as most popular names for our pets. The list of thirty most popular pet names also includes Molly, Brandy, Ginger, Misty, Jake, Samantha, Maggie, and Charlie. The recent royal marriage of Prince William of Wales and Kate Middleton added the bride’s Cocker Spaniel named Otto to the new household. Of course, sweet pet names like Princess, Baby, and Muffin still make the list.
Horse names are beginning to sound more like people names, too. Among the top thirty horse names today we find Misty, Toby, Buddy, Jake, Jack, Harley, and Annie. In this day and age, it’s a little hard to imagine somebody strapping a work harness on a pet named Annie. Our relationship with our domesticated animal friends certainly has changed.
How We Bond with our Pets
Really, the bonds that we establish with the beloved animal friends who share our lives and homes make them more like companions than pets. And what better companion could you hope to have than one who eagerly anticipates your arrival, greets you enthusiastically at the door, and always wants to be by your side? We don’t bond with our human family and friends that well. Unlike our children, our pets rarely if ever disrespect us. Unlike a spouse, they rarely argue with us or deceive us. Even our best friends can get on our nerves if they become overnight guests for more than two or three days. Our animal companions, however, establish a special bond of pure love that is unconditional. They even forgive our sins and shortcomings. They sit by our side without getting in the way. They are always ready for a walk or a little play. If we are busy or not in the mood, they adjust patiently. They are devoted to us.
We, in turn, become devoted to them. We care for their every need, including emotional support. If we are smart, we learn to play games that they like and give them stimulating exercise. We groom them. We keep them safe, warm, and happy.
Beloved pets are known to mourn their human companions upon death, sometimes losing appetite and occasionally hovering over their belongings or final resting place. The feeling is mutual, of course, as seen in the growing number of pet cemeteries. In fact, there are now pet cemeteries in every state in the nation. There are also a growing number of pet cemeteries in Canada and the UK. In addition, we see the new popularity of pet memorials, books to help with grieving over lost pets, and pet memory albums. Indeed, we have grown close to our animal friends; and it seems that not even death can part us.
Most of our pets will be close members of our family and in our care all of their lives. Unless your pet is a parrot, you will care for your pet from its birth to its death, assuming the role of mother to your cat and pack leader to your dog. Your horse might view you as leader of the herd, as horses are social, herd animals. In any event, our pets live relatively short lives compared to us, despite our modern efforts to improve their health care, dental condition, diet, and overall care. So we are bonded with our pets ’til death do us part.
Unlike your children, you will most likely outlive even your healthiest horse, dog, cat, or other small pet. You must be prepared to see them through all of their lives, providing home hospice care when they become aged and mourning them when they die. Now if your special bond is with a parrot, you will also need to provide direction for their continuing care in your will and family directives, as they will likely outlive you.
I had a special, life-long bond with a wild cat named Mildred, a Tortoise-shell colored shorthair that I picked out of a box of homeless kittens. Emily Merriam, the kindly lady who rescued all of the homeless animals on Mitkof Island in Alaska, offered me my choice of any kitten out of her cardboard box filled with refugees.
Mildred guarded the front of my newspaper office in Petersburg, where the Chamber of Commerce also kept tourist brochures by the front desk. There were also copies of the most recent newspaper edition at the desk with a little container where people could leave their quarter. It was the honor system. Mildred, however, made sure they paid and didn’t mess up the Chamber brochures. If anyone appeared a bit disorderly, Mildred would scratch them. She did look after my interests, whenever I was away from the front desk.
Later when I left Alaska and drove across the United States, Mildred came with me. I would open the door to my roadside motels, so that she could go out and explore at night. Then in the morning, she would just jump into the car.
Later when I did the “Healing with Your Pet” weekly radio show, guest after guest would recite similar stories of how they bonded with their pets. Linda Tellington-Jones told us how she established amazing rapport with horses that led to her creating the Tellington TTouch and her amazing healing career with so many species of animals. Another guest related the story of authors Dora Kunz and Dolores Kreiger in rescuing a dog on the New Jersey Turnpike and practicing Therapeutic Touch on it prior to their creation of the TT program and their many books about hands-on energy healing.
Certainly, we bond with pets in intimate ways today that go far beyond the relationship that our ancestors had with domestic animals. Our animal companions bond with us physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
Today people seem to enjoy a deeper empathic relationship with their pets. We don’t just yell at the dog barking at us from the barn or ignore its calls to us. We live together and share our deepest feelings in ways that most human friends and relatives never experience. That’s because we care for each other on many levels.
Pets are naturally empathic, of course, as they communicate non-verbally with others of their species, for the most part. They only meow or bark at us to get our attention when we are not properly tuned to their deeper telepathy. Curiously, some dogs are now reported to identify some 200 words or phrases that we speak to them. Alexandra Horowitz in her book Inside of a Dog reports German experiments in 2004 with a Border Collie named Rico who could identify more than 200 toys by name. Since then, there have been even more astounding claims about just how many words some dogs seem to know. On the other hand, sadly, we do not understand most of their barks.
Horses, with their superior range of hearing, are able to learn and memorize human words and hear the human voice even better than dogs, according to research by scientist Ethologist Sankey of the University of Rennes. Her amazing conclusions are based on study she did with colleagues on twenty Anglo-Arabian horses and three French Saddlebred horses stabled in Chamberet, France.
Cats also seem to know a lot more words and expression, now that they share our homes and our lives. At the same time, we do not seem to understand the varied vocal sounds that cats use in attempts to communicate with us. The problem is that we are not plugged into them to the same degree. So our pets, being naturally empathetic, seek other ways to communicate with us.
Animals that become close members of our family and live with us learn to quickly read us on many levels using this empathy. They sense our feelings and seem to read our minds, much as they would do with others of their species.
This empathy between us and the special animals who share our world goes both ways, of course. We might not have the same wonderful gift of intuition that our pets possess, but we do try to read their needs without many verbal clues. In time, we learn to sense when our cat is hungry or when our dog needs to go outside. Yes, we do consider their body language to a degree, but we learn to read them, too.
Verbal language is rarely if ever used between cats, dogs, horses, or rabbits. They communicate with thoughts that are not auditory. In time, we learn to read them empathically. We sense what our pets need, because we have grown so close to them — not only physically, but also emotionally and spiritually.
As we learn to empathize with them, we see our close bonds forming a symbiotic relationship by which we mutually complement each other. Symbiotic relationships by nature are close, long-lasting associations between members of different species who find mutual benefit by their intimacy. In this sense, our pets make us whole, and we provide family care and intimacy for them, as well.
As responsible pet owners, we should not abuse this special empathy we share with our pets. We should not let our emotions spill over on our pets. We should hold our anger in check and guard against emotional outbursts. We should learn to control our pain on many levels, because our pain impacts our sensitive pets. If we allow them the opportunity, our pets will absorb and identify with our emotional highs and lows in attempts to empathize with us, whether real, imagined, or small. They will manifest the symptoms of our pain and attempt to absorb it all for us in their concern to bond with us and heal with us.
There are many stories about dogs and cats mirroring symptoms of their human companions. I had a cat who tried to mirror almost everything about me. Mister K would try to drink my coffee, eat peanuts with me during ballgames, smoke my pipe, and even drive my car. When I would sneeze, he would sneeze. I learned to take allergy medication when I learned that his sneezing could not be verified as anything inherently wrong with him.
Another cat, Miss Polly, developed lung cancer at the advanced age of 20. I had stopped smoking long before she showed up on my doorstep, already an elderly cat of about 14. Since Polly liked to sit on the sofa and watch television, I surmised that her previous owner was somewhat of a coach potato who smoked in the house.
You’ve probably heard that there is a growing concern about mental illness in pets. We never heard about mental illness in our pets when they were kept at a distance in the barn or shed. It seems that these symptoms manifested after they came into our lives and moved into our homes.
Our pets certainly seem to sense whenever we are happy, sad, depressed, nervous, or ill. They sit with us and keep us company when they sense that we need a friend who can listen quietly and not be judgmental. That’s probably what makes these noble animals so very effective in therapy work. Many dogs and cats in growing numbers are becoming certified to work in therapy situations.
My last dog, Nikki, was employed in a drug rehabilitation program. It was a residency program for young women. Nikki instinctively seemed to know exactly which woman most needed her help and would sit by her when things became almost too stressful to bear. Nikki would look up with those big, brown eyes and really connect with the woman. Soon the woman would begin petting Nikki and calming down. If the woman was shut in her bedroom, Nikki would just camp out in front of her door and wait for her.
Dogs, cats, and horses are now used in a variety of therapy programs that take advantage of their empathic healing skills. They are used in group homes, drug programs, nursing homes, hospitals, and programs for the disabled. One of my first magazine features as a young journalist took me to a corral where handicapped children were treated to horse rides.
In Seattle, courts have pioneered yet another use for dogs to calm people. They have employed dogs to calm children who are put through the rigors of courtroom situations when they are needed to testify. The dogs reportedly are most effective in relaxing the children.
Dogs also have a long and distinguished record as service dogs in aiding the handicapped. They act as eyes, ears, and protector to people who depend on them with their lives.
We also see dogs and cats used in long-term care facilities including convalescent homes, retirement centers, and hospice care. It’s a joy to see an elderly person with a purring cat on his or her lap or a dog working its charm as the ideal companion.
An even newer use of therapy pets is found in programs for emotionally disturbed children. Their violence and distrust bend to a touching bond between troubled children and pets who nuzzle their way into their softening hearts.
The amazing thing, perhaps, is that almost any pet that has been properly socialized into a loving home and experienced the human-animal bond can become a therapy pet in some way or another. There are certification programs around the US and other countries for recognizing pets that are gentle, patient, calm, and tolerant of strangers. These are pets that have known love and now have extra love to share.
We all recognize that giving a loving home to a homeless animal and giving it proper care will improve its life. It’s even easy to see how pets that form close human-animal bonds in loving homes live longer lives. More amazing, perhaps, is the way pets improve the health of their human companions and even extend their longevity. Indeed, there is growing evidence today that our life-long attachment to our pets will lower our blood pressure, help reduce stress, prevent heart disease, lower our health care costs, reduce depression, and even lengthen our lives. When we give our heart to a pet, our heart becomes strengthened in many tangible ways.
For the most part, the act of petting seems to improve the circulation and overall heart condition of both pet and human companion. It’s largely a matter of tactile stimulation that impacts the nervous system and calms the system. A nerve is connected to each hair in your pet’s coat. When you stroke or massage your pet’s coat, as with massage or simple petting, your pet’s heart rate is decreased. It works basically the same for us. When we stroke our pet, nerve receptors in our hands send a relaxing message to reduce our heart rate. Our hands are very sensitive. This calming effect has many health benefits that are similar for both pet and owner.
A recent study by Dr. Karen Allen at State University in New York at Buffalo found that pets help to lower blood pressure. The study found that people who suffer from hypertension can adopt a cat or dog to lower blood pressure readings. That benefit of pet ownership stood in stark contrast to people with hypertension who did not bond with a pet.
Other studies conducted worldwide demonstrate how just walking your pet can sooth nerves and offer instant relaxation. People who do not own or walk a pet in the comparison studies did not fair as well on the stress meter. Walking the dog has proven especially helpful to males in reducing stress, according to reported findings from Josephine M. Willis of the Waltham Centre for Pet Nutrition in the United Kingdom.
Similarly, pets have demonstrated the almost magical ability to prevent heart disease in happy people who enjoy their faithful, loving companionship. Research reported by the National Institute of Health Technology Assessment Workshop on health benefits of pets shows that pets provide their owners with greater psychological stamina as protection against heart disease. The U.S. Department of Health found that 28 percent of heart patients were able to survive a serious heart attack if they owned a pet compared with only 6 percent for non-pet owners. They also found that having a pet is as effective for blood pressure control as a reduced sodium diet or limiting alcohol.
In addition, pets have demonstrated an ability to reduce depression in their human companions, according to a 2011 report on industry trends by American Pet Products Association. Close bonding with a pet has been shown to reduce loneliness and foster an interest in life. This is especially true of seniors faced with traumatic adversity. In such situations, affection from pets takes on great importance. Bonding between pet and human companion begins to generate a greater sense of security.
It’s easy to see, then, how pets help to lower the health care cost of human companions. And statistics from National Institute of Health Technology Assessment Workshop on health benefits of pets certainly proves this point. People who bond with pets, according to their report, actually make fewer visits to the doctor, particularly for less serious medical conditions. A US survey of 1,000 Medicare recipients found that 40 percent of elderly patients who own pets are less likely to request the services of doctors.
Pets used for therapy in nursing homes even offer protection against the onslaught of Alzheimer’s disease, according to studies reported by animal behaviorist Patricia McConnell in her book For the Love of a Dog: Understanding Emotion in You and Your Best Friend. She reports that therapy pets in nursing homes reduce depression and help curb social withdrawal commonly associated with Alzheimer’s. “We know from studies,” Dr. McConnell says, “that interacting with pets can have a direct influence on your health, from lowering your blood pressure and increasing levels of serotonin to helping you get more exercise.”
Research at Purdue University observed how Alzheimer’s patients in special care units began to eat more healthfully when aquariums were introduced into their dining rooms. In a seminar study in Italy, senior citizens with canaries had fewer cases of depression than those without pets and seemed to enjoy an increased quality of life.
Generally speaking, studies during the past twenty years indicate that both pets and their human companions live longer, more healthy lives than pets and humans who do not form this sort of close human-animal bond.