How pets help us cope better in tough times
Estimated reading time: 4 minutes
At the start of the COVID-19 lockdown, many of us adopted pets. But why are pets so important for our emotional well-being? And exactly how have pets helped us cope in these tough times?
You matter to your pet
Prolonged eye contact with a pet is very satisfying. It signals you recognise each other as significant in some way.
And you may really be the most important being in your pet’s life.
Perhaps that’s the particular charm of dogs, cats and other pets. You matter to them, even if you don’t seem to matter to anyone else.
Of course, pets are motivated by the need for food, warmth and shelter. They’ve evolved over thousands of years to be both appealing and useful to us. Think of how irresistible kittens and puppies are – and how well they catch vermin when they’re older.
In caveman days, we let them hang around our campfires and grab what food they could. That way, we ensured their survival.
Now your pets depend on you to be their leader and carer. That alone gives you a reason to get up in the morning. Even owners of less cuddly animals report a greater sense of purpose in having to care for another living being.
But owners don’t just look after their pet’s physical needs. They also fulfill their pet’s need to belong, which boosts attachment between them.
Having that emotional bond is one important way our pets help us cope in tough times. It enhances a two-way sense of belonging.
Sense of belonging
Pets reward your love and attention over and over with their trust and affection. And although the stereotype is of dogs pining for their owners when they’ve been separated, cats and other mammals can also do the same.
Dogs and cats seem to view us as each belonging to the other. The delight they show at seeing you isn’t wholly explained by them expecting to get food.
So even if you feel isolated, your pets help you cope by reassuring you that you do belong, and you are loved and needed.
We’re learning more about the way domestic animals show their wishes and emotions via both sounds and body language.
Every pet owner recognises the little quirks that various pets have. One may be boisterous and always up for a hug, while another prefers to approach you more gently.
Cats may seem inexpressive, but in fact, they’re very attuned to what’s going on with their owners. They also show quite subtle signs of their emotions by small movements of their ears and tail.
Dogs, of course, are an open book. Their joyfulness is an instant pick-me-up for anyone who’s feeling a bit down.
Every pet owner can tell of times when their pet sensed they were unhappy, and came to comfort them. Pets can even help us cope with the sadness and loneliness caused by losing a partner or friend.
Their presence can calm us down when we’re anxious. More and more workplaces allow dogs on certain days to improve staff morale.
And who hasn’t felt their internal tension melt away after cuddling a pet at the end of the day?
Pets keep us in the present
Of course, we all love the endless entertainment pets provide with their silly antics. Their mere presence helps us stay in the present moment, rather than stressing about the past or future.
And that helps us cope better with the demands of our complex lives.
Pets accept us as we are
Some people say they prefer animals to people. They feel animals are more forgiving and accepting. Because best of all, pets never accuse you of not being good enough.
They never sneer at your mistakes, growing waistline or lack of status. They don’t pretend you’ve suddenly become invisible. Pets never get sick of your company, and are delighted if you stay in every night. And they certainly don’t tell you how pathetic your jokes are.
Pets are endlessly tolerant of your strange habits. So their total acceptance can boost your mood and self-esteem, especially when you’re going through a rough patch.
Pets don’t hold grudges
Part of the appeal of a happy and secure pet is that they are so straight-forward.
Every day is a new day with a pet. They’re always happy to see you, without complicated emotional dramas. There’s no anguish or second-guessing as to their motives. No grudges.
It’s usually clear what they want, and what they’re willing to give in return. They follow us with interest, anticipation, excitement, and sometimes anxiety, as if we’re gods.
Pets really do understand us
So pets often seem tuned in to our emotions. But how much can they understand of what we say?
Many owners swear that their animals understand everything. Now we all know that this is probably a fond exaggeration.
However, it is true that both cats and dogs can be trained to recognise a large number of words or phrases. They can also learn to follow a range of simple commands.
After all, owners often talk to their pets in short, repetitive phrases, followed by particular actions. Over time, their pets then associate the right words with the right actions.
This can make life with a pet easier, as you can teach them what you want them to do. And here’s another way to connect with your pet, and have fun at the same time.
Intelligent cats and dogs can probably understand about as much as a child of perhaps 12 – 18 months old. With deliberate training, they can probably learn more than you think.
But to go further, and say cats and dogs are like little humans, isn’t really realistic.
Their brains aren’t as complex as ours. For example, they can’t plan ahead, or solve a series of intricate problems to reach a complex goal. Although their communication with each other can be subtle, it’s still nowhere near as complex as ours.
The beauty of pets makes us feel good
The last way in which pets help us cope is that they are truly beautiful. Their faces are so full of expression, their movements so fluid and full of grace, that we can’t stop looking at them. Why else are we so enraptured by all those fascinating photos of animals on the internet?
And looking at such beauty never fails to make you feel better.
So pets help you cope when you need to be resilient. And all they ask is that you provide their basic needs and a little comfort. What a godsend pets have been over the past year!