Dogs are wonderful creatures bringing with them an enormous sense of friendship and trust. Research shows pet ownership can improve mental and physical health, lower blood pressure and reduce anxiety. This can be hugely beneficial not just in daily life but also in times of stress.
One stressful time for many is during periods of ill health or needing medical care. Being in hospital can be extremely worrying for lots of patients and being warmly greeted by a friendly pet can make the experience less frightening.
In recent years there has been a move towards more dogs being welcomed into hospitals, in order to calm and soothe anxious patients. Younger children, for example, experience reduced anxiety when a trained dog accompanied them to the anaesthetic room.
In fact, a wealth of anecdotal evidence about the benefits of pets on patients, led the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) to call for dogs and other animals to be allowed into hospitals.
In 2017 a RCN study of over 750 nurses revealed nine out of 10 believed animals improved the wellbeing of patients with mental health problems such as depression, and six out of 10 felt the presence of animals in hospital could speed up their patient’s physical recovery.
The RCN’s Amanda Cheesley called for: “Better, more consistent access to animals for all patients who can benefit, as the evidence is clear that as well as bringing joyful moments to people when they are unwell, the clinical benefits are tangible. Nurses have told us of patients with reduced anxiety, better interaction and a whole reason to live – and we should listen to these experiences.”
This compelling anecdotal evidence is backed up by research from a publication called The Economic Impact of Companion Animals in the UK. This suggests companion animals have a massive beneficial impact on the NHS – largely financial:
- It is estimated that pet ownership in the UK may reduce use of the NHS to the value of £2.45 billion/year through reduced visits to the doctor.
- In 2017 2.28 million people in the UK were diagnosed with an anxiety disorder costing the economy approximately £8.9 billion. It is projected by 2026, 2.56 million anxiety-related diagnosis will be made, costing the economy approximately £14.2 billion.
- Pet owners report fewer sick days from work, thereby saving employers and businesses stress and money.
- In the UK around one in five carers is forced to give up work – over £5 billion is lost from the economy due to lost earnings from individuals giving up work to take on caring duties.
- Classroom dogs help reduce truancy related to youth crime and youth unemployment. The daily cost of youth unemployment to the UK due to productivity loss is £10 million and with £20 million a week added on due to benefit payments the monthly cost is £360 million*
Behaviourally assessed volunteer dogs are already visiting hospices, nursing and care homes and special needs schools.
Volunteer dogs are widely used in the community and can help people suffering from loneliness, providing them with companionship in vulnerable times.
A dog’s friendly presence can provide a real lifeline for those feeling cut off from their community and can help combat social isolation. Pets provide companionship, emotional support, walking the dog offers the chance for physical activity, fresh air and socialising with other pet owners. For some people it may be the reason they get up in the morning, providing consistency and structure to the day. For the elderly, caring and feeding a pet can foster a sense of empowerment for the older person who often finds themselves in the role of being looked after. A pet can also offer support during times of bereavement.
The Society for Companion Animal Studies highlights research indicating ‘pet ownership, particularly dog ownership, is probably associated with a decrease in cardiovascular dementia risk and may have some casual role in reducing that risk.’ Research also shows a reduction in verbal aggression and anxiety in those suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.
Sadly, for a large proportion of the elderly and infirm needing to go into care homes where pets are often not allowed, the only solution is to have their pet put down. A recent survey discovered over 2 million people in the UK knew someone forced to put their dog or cat down because of a move into residential care. The same survey showed 20% of elderly people with pets would rather refuse to go into care than be separated from their pet, and crucially 4.3% of respondents would consider taking their own life if they were forced to separate from their pet companions.
Other countries around world have acknowledged the fact that splitting owners and their pets can be detrimental. France for example has allowed housing tenants the right to keep pets since 1970’s. Other countries such as India, Belgium and areas of Australia are following suit. Earlier this year, the Society for Companion Animal Studies ran a conference on this theme called Pets in housing: promoting health and wellbeing, with the intention of affecting change in local authorities and in government on this very important topic.
*Statistics taken from The Economic Impact of Companion Animals in the UK, by Sophie Hall, Luke Dolling, Katie Bristow, Ted Fuller and Daniel S Mills (2017)
Read our blog next week on how to find out whether your dog could become a Therapy Dog, and whether you could help The Cinnamon Trust, a national charity supporting the elderly or terminally ill look after their pets.
First Aid for Pets provides this information for guidance and it is not in any way a substitute for veterinary advice. The author does not accept any liability or responsibility for any inaccuracies or for any mistreatment or misdiagnosis of any person or animal, however caused. It is strongly advised that you attend a practical First Aid for Pets course or take our online course to understand what to do in a medical emergency.