Did you know October 4 was World Animal Day?
World Animal Day started in 1931 at a convention of ecologists in Florence as a way of highlighting the plight of endangered species. October 4 was chosen as World Animal Day as it is the Feast Day of St Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals. Since then, World Animal Day has become a day for remembering and paying tribute to all animals and the people who love and respect them.
There are some important reasons for highlighting this special day and they relate to the wellness of humans and animals. First we’ll start with some recent stories that highlight why we should be thinking about and doing more for animal wellbeing. Then we move onto the good stuff – the stories of why animals are good for our wellbeing.
The Bad Stories first!
In recent weeks there have been some appalling news stories of how we are treating animals in the name of progress, economic development, in search of oil, material wealth and just plain ignorance. These are some you can read/watch for yourself if you have the stomach for it!
In her book Animals and Public Health Why Treating Animals Better is Critical to Human Welfare, Dr Ayisha Akhtar reflects, “today there is mounting evidence of a very real, and often very direct, relationship between animal welfare and human welfare, most specifically with regard to human health”. With that in mind let’s take a look at the good; research that supports the theory that having pets and interacting with animals in the wild is beneficial to human wellbeing.
Now the Good Stories
Dogs and cats are possibly the most common pet’s urban dwellers are accustomed to – unless your kids have had the obligatory hamster – and consequently there is substantial research on the effects of these pets on human health and wellbeing. If you’re a pet owner I’m sure this research will confirm what you already know and if you’re not it may just convince you that a pet choice is worthwhile!
- When conducting a stressful task, researchers found that people experienced less stress when their pets were with them than when a spouse, family member or close friend was nearby.
- Pet therapy has been around a very long time with the first reported instances of using domesticated animals for therapy occurring in the 18th century. Pet therapy involves the use of pets to improve social, emotional and cognitive function.
- Pet therapy has been used for patients recovering from surgery and has been helpful to those suffering chronic pain, with doctors suggesting that pet therapy can reduce anxiety which in turn reduces pain.
Oh cat, beautiful cat, you’re a wondrous sight. To see you fills my heart with much delight. Christine Bentley
Without a doubt the most obvious benefit of having pets is improving mood and emotions.
- Our pets can make us feel special, and giving them attention and love through stroking and petting releases happy hormones like oxytocin (the love hormone) in both us and our pets. Pet therapy is even used for those suffering debilitating psychological conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder.
- Dogs in particular, or any pets you can take for a walk, can improve social wellness, especially for the elderly or those who may not have a social support network.
This review found overall benefits of pet ownership. Some highlights include:
- Dog owners were found to have higher levels of physical activity than non-pet owners. One study found an increase in the overall level of physical activity to the extent that is was beneficial to health.
- Pet owners (of the same demographic) were found to have less doctor / medical visits than non-pet owners.
- Pet owners are associated with less depression in HIV patients
- Some may find this controversial, but pets have been found to improve immunity and prevent allergies. Studies in the US have found that children with pets attended school on more days and had fewer allergies than those who did not have pets.
- Pet’s aid children’s development in many ways such as; understanding responsibility, routine, loving kindness, affection and gratitude.
These are just some of the rewarding benefits of owning a pet that contribute to physical and emotional wellbeing and quality of life.
What about interactions in the wild? (by wild I mean ‘in nature’, in the animal’s natural habitat and by no means the confined, entertainment facilities that refer to themselves as zoos, aquariums or some such other animal enclosures)
In a study of what makes for memorable wildlife encounters the researcher who attended one of the encounters says this of her experience:
I watched in awe as these lovely magic circles slid past the boat. I had seen and had been in the presence of a blue whale. It was hard to believe. It was only later on in my cabin that it occurred to me how privileged I had been
The researcher goes on to say this about participants experiences
Participants consistently explained that it is not always easy to pick out the ‘best’ events because almost everything they had seen is astonishing and relevant in its own right.
Wonderment, awe, and excitement are just some of the emotions we experience when we encounter animals in the wild. There is no doubt that humans have a natural emotional affinity to nature, perhaps it is because we know these are fleeting moments and we are simply visitors in this realm.
Surprisingly, there is little research in this area perhaps because such experiences are more often shared as stories. A review of conservation websites found little in the way of positive stories of encounters from the field. This is something they may want to consider because positive stories can capture positive emotion so much more than the cold hard facts of where things are going wrong.
In light of this lack, I share a story of an encounter with a manta ray in the wild that left me in awe and very emotional. As a scuba diver I have been privileged to dive some incredible locations and witness amazing animal behaviors. One of the most memorable was whilst I volunteered on Project Manta an EarthWatch expedition. Our job was to sit on the bottom of the ocean floor and photograph manta rays for an identification database the project team was developing. On this dive a beautiful very large pregnant female came to the bommie that four of us where positioned beside. We were already thrilled when she just stayed and swam around us for a long while. But then the most amazing this happened. She swam right up to the project leader and almost brushed her belly over her and after a couple of loops doing this she came to me and behaved in a similar way – she was so close and so beautiful I could have reached out to hug her…but I didn’t. I was so moved by this encounter I found myself crying underwater. Oh and did I mention that we were the only females in the group of four!
This encounter had a profound effect and contributed to my desire to understand how we can change human behavior toward animals and our environment – through research – to enable educators to instill those changes. I have written about this here as well.
So even though World Animal Day has been, consider the benefit all animals have on human wellness, the importance they play in the balance of what is the biodiversity on our planet. Let’s be grateful for the contribution they make to our daily lives and perhaps you may even consider a daily act of kindness toward an animal.
Jane Goodall offers us 10 things we can do for animals, of which my favorite is “Act knowing we are not alone and live with hope.”
Share your stories about memorable animal encounters…we would love to hear them.
Arhant-Sudhir, K., Arhant-Sudhir, R., & Sudhir, K. (2011). Pet ownership and cardiovascular risk reduction: Supporting evidence, conflicting data and underlying mechanisms. Clinical and Experimental Pharmacology and Physiology, 38(11), 734-738. doi: 10.1111/j.1440-1681.2011.05583.x
Aysha Akhtar , Animals and Public Health , Palgrave Macmillan December 2011
Curtin, S. (2010). What makes for memorable wildlife encounters? Revelations from ‘serious’ wildlife tourists. Journal of Ecotourism, 9(2), 149-168. doi: 10.1080/14724040903071969
Goodall, J. (2011), 10 Best Things We Can Do For Animals, Yes Magazine
Olmert, M.G. (2010) Made for Each Other: The Biology of the Human-Animal Bond, Da Capo Press, Cambridge.
World Animal Day, http://www.worldanimalday.org.uk/