Pets can tell us something about ourselves as well

A dear family member passed away. He was furry, short and stout and graying. My family adopted him from the BLM about 25 years ago when he was in his early teens as were my sisters and I.

He was really my sister's horse but we all rode "Shadow" and our other horses. You can count on your hands the number of times our horses were saddled; my sisters and I loved to race them bareback across the fields behind my parents' house. Those fields are mostly covered with houses now, but when I look out there I still see us all out riding together. Our horses felt more like friends: we didn't get carried away trying to control them, and they returned the favor in kind.

As we got older we would ride the horses when we came home to Carson City during vacations. Slowly, Shadow and his remaining brother transitioned into my parents' "pets." My parents lovingly nursed them through their later years feeding them "Senior Feed" each day. The feed is expensive and likely added years to their lives but as my parents always said, "Those horses were so good to you kids for all those years they deserve a grand retirement."

Pets are an important part of many peoples' lives. For each of us pet owners, our pet is special to us for our own reasons, and our relationship with our pet probably says a lot about our personality. Some people like to have a lot of control over their pets and focus on training them. Some people just want companionship. Some enjoy competing or showing their pets, and others use their pets for a special purpose like hunting. Regardless of their role, all one has to do is consider the hundreds of books, songs and movies written about pets to get an idea of their meaning in our lives.

People have been keeping animals as pets for approximately 10,000 years. It is believed that dogs were the first domesticated animals followed by cats. Mental health experts have understood the value people place on their pets for decades. As early as the 1890s Freud noted, "It really explains why one can love an animal...with such an extraordinary intensity; affection without ambivalence, the simplicity free from the almost unbearable conflict of civilization, the beauty of an existence complete in itself...that feeling of intimate affinity, of an undisputed solidarity."

It's only been in the last 10 years that research has focused on the relationship between humans and "man's best friends." It's no surprise that owning a pet can reduce stress. Drs. Blascovich and Mendes from the University of California at Santa Barbara found that pets lower stress by "providing nonjudgmental companionship." These researchers believe that even the most encouraging spouse or friend sometimes has a hard time being so generous in their support which might explain pets' uniqueness in our lives.

Other studies have found that mortality rates lower after a heart attack if one has an animal. Those who own pets tend to rate themselves as less lonely and depressed and to engage in more physical fitness than those who don't. Pets are often particularly beneficial to elderly people for these reasons. One study of senior citizens found that pet owners felt significantly more dependable, helpful, self-confident and self-sufficient than non-pet owners.

As we increasingly understand the importance of touch throughout our lives, pets provide a crucial source of contact for isolated individuals. Research shows that petting animals leads to almost instant reductions in stress and anxiety for most of us.

Pet ownership is known to help children improve responsibility and nurturance. In one study American boys were found to spend 2.45 minutes per weekend caring for elderly relatives or younger siblings. They spent 10.33 minutes on average caring for their pets.

An exploratory study at Eastern Kentucky University found that those workplaces that allowed pets had employees who rated their workplace as less stressful and better for their mental and physical well-being. Workers also reported that having a workplace animal improved their organization as a whole.

But you don't have to tell pet owners all of this; we already know.

My mom likes to tell the story about when my sister went away to college. Once she started college she didn't have much time to spend with Shadow. My dad decided to give Shadow away to a family friend who wanted him. My sister came home one weekend and caught wind of my father's plans. I am not privy to the conversation that followed between my sister and my dad, but my mom says that when my dad walked out of the room he said, "It's very clear to me that if anyone is leaving it's not going to be the horse."

Goodbye, Shadow. Thank you for the memories, dear friend.

n Lisa Keating, Ph.D., is a Carson City clinical psychologist.


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