April 15, 2024

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

This article, by Sia Pathak, was voted a runner-up in Imperial College's Spring 2022 I,Write competition, the science journalism contest organised by I, Science magazine for students in Years 10-13.

By Sia Pathak

Rocky, our miniature poodle, is a valued member of our family, as I’m sure many other pet owners can relate to. He’s sprightly and protective, barking every time there’s a knock at our door. It’s not just strangers he’s kept away, but also physical and mental illness that we are all at risk of. Owning a pet comes with a plethora of benefits for health and well-being, as any pet owner will testify to. Dogs in particular form a bond that’s dependable and loyal, as long as you have plenty of treats! 

Lina, with her big brown eyes and floppy ears, spends much of her day on a pillow by the door of Reverend Cecile’s office, sleeping; eyes half open gazing at people walking past. She sometimes takes a stroll through the school corridors or roams the school field. Unbeknown to her, she’s actually making a huge difference to the lives of her school-friends. She, like many other dogs, is one of an increasing number of therapy animals, brought into schools to bring joy and alleviate stress in an environment where increasing numbers of students are suffering from poor mental health.

Lina has been with Reverend Cecile since she was only 14 weeks old. ‘I could carry her around in my cycling bag and take her to various school and nursing home visits’, she told me. ‘So, Lina got used to visiting many new places and being gentle in people’s hands very early on.’ Lina passed her assessment as a therapy dog when she was one and a half years old. Now, Lina is five and a half and has been going to school for a few years. Many pupils and staff come to visit Lina – to stroke her, touch her warm belly and silky ears – and leave feeling uplifted and a bit less stressed. Interactions with a pet like Lina can reduce levels of cortisol (a stress causing hormone) and increase oxytocin (a hormone associated with love) in the blood. Being with calm animals can also reduce heart rate and blood pressure.

Lina lies there, a warm, breathing, heart-beating creature that doesn’t judge you or talk back. She can listen and trust your knee to be her pillow. Lina simply loves people and in a school environment that can be stressful and tense, she is there to greet you with a wagging tail and ‘tell’ you that everything will be okay. Some students come and sit with Lina to revise before an exam or give her a stroke when they are upset.

As well as improving mental health, dogs, whether it be squirrel chasers, ball fetchers, or pond swimmers, have been shown to improve physical wellbeing too. Monika, the proud owner of Clover, Lucy and Myrtle, notes that her physical health has improved thanks to her dogs. Since January, she has walked 1000 miles, the equivalent of walking from London to Inverness and back. Whether strolling through wonderful countryside, agility training or mantrailing (searching for missing people), exercising her dogs has helped her stay active, meet other dog lovers, and develop a stronger bond with her dogs.

Pets increase opportunities to go outside, meet fitness goals, and by reduce the risk of health problems such as cardiovascular disease. Furthermore, exercise builds endurance, and helps strengthen the immune system, as Monika explains: ‘I haven’t been ill for years, and my children only had a couple of very mild colds’. Exercising her dogs have also helped boost Monika’s happiness, as after her walks, she says ‘I feel more relaxed, and happier’. This is due to the release of endorphins, and dopamine, as well as also reduction of cortisol.  

Not only can dogs prevent health problems but they can be very beneficial for people with existing health problems. My dog Rocky has a best friend, a beautiful Cavapoo named Ruby. Ruby is mischievous but also extremely gentle; her almond eyes and silky locks of golden hair are guaranteed to bring joy. Her owner Maggie visits her mother, who suffers from dementia, in a care home every week and everyone there undoubtedly enjoys Ruby’s company. ‘Mum loves seeing Ruby every week, as do the rest of the residents in her care home. She particularly enjoys having Ruby on her lap in the wheelchair as she likes to stroke her and give her lots of cuddles. This definitely makes her feel happier and calmer and it gives her mind something to focus on,’ says Maggie. Dogs are beneficial especially for dementia patients as they provide a comforting friend to stroke and talk to.

Dogs can really transform some people’s lives. A spokesperson from the Guide Dogs Association said: ‘Pets bring joy to our lives through companionship and acceptance in a whole range of ways. For dog owners there is an especially strong mutual bond with dogs being active members of our families. For guide dog owners this bond goes even further. Our life changing guide dogs help people with sight loss live more independently both by supporting them while out and about and by giving them the confidence to live the life they choose.’

But getting a dog is a big commitment and doesn’t suit everybody’s lifestyle. Luckily, other animals can provide similar benefits. Stroking a cat or other furry pet can help a person who is stressed or agitated. Caring for hens by feeding and collecting eggs can create a routine, which is extremely beneficial for both physical and mental health. One study showed that teenagers with type 1 diabetes were better at monitoring their blood glucose levels if they had a pet fish. The people involved in the study had to care for their fish twice daily and change the water once a week. This responsibility encouraged them to keep to their own routine and make sure they were staying healthy. 

In times of stress it’s good to know man’s best friend (and other creatures) are still keeping us healthy and happy!