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Friends with benefits: The positive paybacks of pet ownership

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Are you looking to introduce a cat or dog into your life? Jane Drew uncovers some of the paybacks of pet ownership and asks if you’re up for the challenge.

“Lots of research has been done on the many benefits of owning a pet,” opens Dr Anita Tomasov, owner and senior veterinary surgeon at Tung Chung Vet Centre. “For me the most important is that you get to experience unconditional love. A dog or cat is always happy to see you when you come home. They don’t care if you have no make-up on, are wearing old clothes, or just failed an exam. They love you for you.”

While we all love to be loved, we also love to give love, and that is something pet owners can’t help but do. You get to love a pet in practical ways, you feed and nurture it and take it to the vet, and you get to lavish affection on it, rather as you do with a child. What’s more, pets make great companions. Most people admit to talking to their pets… and feeling understood.

All this is backed up by Friends With Benefits, a body of research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in July 2011 by psychologists at Miami University and St Louis University in the US. The findings – that the emotional benefits of pet ownership can be equal to those of human friendship – are based on interviews with 370 people. Pet owners were found to have higher self-esteem and be more active than people without pets. They are also less likely to be lonely, ill or depressed.

“Belongingness is considered a central need for people,” the psychologists said. “If pets are ‘psychologically close’ to their owner, they may provide well-being benefits for the owner just like any other person.”

pet ownership

A pet is better than Prozac

The emotional benefits of having a pet can translate into physiological ones as well. The Friends With Benefits study links pet ownership “to decreased pain transmission,” and reveals that the benefits of pet ownership can be especially pronounced in people older than 50.

“An obvious physical benefit of owning a dog or a cat comes from the activity necessary to take care of it, such as playing with it or taking it for a walk,” says Anita. “But pet ownership can also help reduce stress levels, combat depression and even reduce blood pressure.”

Do you find that the stresses of your day seem to vanish as soon as you get home to find your furry friend waiting for you? Well, you’re not imagining it. When you feel a surge of love – an immediate sense of attachment – your brain releases chemicals that reduce your breathing rate, blood pressure and anxiety level.

In terms of mental health, taking care of a dog or a cat can provide a sense of purpose and a feeling of validation. Added to which, it’s almost impossible to feel lonely with a pet in the house. Animals simplify things too. If they are fed and loved, they give love in return. So, for some, a pet is better than Prozac.

In fact, a 2015 study in Science revealed that oxytocin (one of the body’s feelgood chemicals) is boosted in both dog and human when a dog owner stares into the eyes of his dog. Studies have also shown that stroking a pet increases the levels of serotonin and dopamine in our bodies.

A pet can help you stay married

The Friends With Benefits study also reveals that pet owners are just as close to friends and family as they are to their animals. “We repeatedly observed evidence that people who enjoyed greater benefits from their pets also were closer to other important people in their lives and received more support from them, not less,” the psychologists said.

Anita agrees, and goes so far as to say that early pet ownership can actually help people stay married. “If both spouses owned pets as a child, statistically they are less likely to divorce than spouses who grew up without pets. The theory is that learning empathy and body language from owning a pet when young gives adults the ability to read their partners.”

Empathy isn’t the only thing kids learn from pet ownership, according to Anita. “They learn responsibility from feeding and looking after their pet. Research also suggests that children who grow up with animals are less likely to get sick and that pet owners generally make fewer trips to the doctor.

“Lots of new parents are worried that having a pet around their new baby will increase the risk of allergies but the reverse is true,” Anita adds. “Studies have repeatably shown that exposure to pets during pregnancy and in the nursery leads to children having less allergies as they grow up.”

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How to adopt a pet

For anyone thinking of homing a pet this year, some respected animal rescue groups are listed overleaf. Due to the closure of Protection of Animals Lantau South (PALS) this summer, Okka Scherer, who cares for abandoned dogs in her Pui O home, is the person to contact in Lantau. Hong Kong PAWS Foundation (PAWS), though not actually based in Lantau, runs weekly Adoption Days for both dogs and cats in DB Plaza.

Headed up by Kat Cheung, PAWS works with local animal shelters to provide financial aid, animal-care consultation and rehoming services.

When it comes to welcoming a pet into your family, Kat is adamant that adoption is the way forward. “Adopt an animal and you save a life,” she says. “Don’t buy from pet shops or breeders, while hundreds and thousands of animals are waiting for a home… or waiting to be euthanised.”

Kat also advises that you choose a non-breed pet, and one that is indigenous to Hong Kong. “Go for character and not appearance,” she says. “Some breeds are hyperactive or disposed to a poor temperament. Cats and dogs ‘built’ for a cold climate will suffer in the heat without constant air-conditioning.

“Responsible pet ownership involves time, effort and money,” Kat adds. “Consider your accommodation, your family members and your working schedule before bringing an animal home.”

PAWS requires prospective owners to fill out a questionnaire to help them choose the right animal, and you can foster for a fortnight before committing to adopt. “It is a big decision to take the life of an animal into your hands – we want people to be absolutely sure about what they’re doing, so they can give the animal the care it deserves,” says Kat.


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Photos by Baljit Gidwani – www.evoqueportraits.com, and courtesy of Dr Anita Tomasov

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