Humans and their pets have symbiotic relationships: we are rhinos and oxpeckers, clownfish and sea anemones. By and large we humans see ourselves as the dominant of the partnership. We do buy the food and carry around the crinkly plastic baggies after all. But just as there are times when a rhino wouldn’t survive if his little bird friend didn’t flit away when a predator approached, there are times when we would fall if not for our animals.
Most of us have heard the studies about how bonding with an animal will chemically improve our health. Simply being in the same room as our furry companion releases oxytocin in our brains – a chemical dubbed the companionship chemical by Neely Tucker on WNYC’s Radiolab. Oxytocin makes us feel stable and connected to the world. In addition, pets are said to lower cholesterol, ease chronic pain, and boost the immune system. Who could say no to that? Pets benefit our health just by being there.
Over the eons humans have come to rely on our animals for more than just happy chemical stimulus. They are our allies. But when did it start? The oldest known domesticated dog, found in the Altai Mountains of Siberia, dates back 33,000 years.
Modern day dog lovers in therapy and wellness fields harken back to those early days of the human-canine bond by employing animals to rehabilitate people with substance abuse and social issues. While it’s commonly accepted by rehabilitation specialists that having family support is vital to a patient’s recovery, more and more programs are now seeing the benefit that a person’s non-human family can have on recovery.
Wolf Connection, for example, pairs troubled youth with rescued wolves. One of the poignant aspects of the program is that the kids can draw parallels between their struggles and the struggles the wolves have faced to get to the sanctuary. Many were abandoned, mistreated, and neglected before being taken in. Canines, when not winning-over youth and recovering addicts, also work in other forms of social service: fighting crime, helping the blind, and alerting owners of an impending seizure, to name just a few.
Cats too are an ever-more-popular choice for companion animals. They’re natural comforters and their purring can be especially calming to people with neurological disorders. Cat expert Franny Syufy recounts the story of Oscar, the cat who rules the third floor dementia ward of Steere House Nursing and Rehabilitation Center:
Oscar has the almost mystical ability to sniff out patients who face imminent death, and he invariably stays with them until they have passed over. Often, Oscar will not leave a patient’s bedside until someone arrives.
This anecdote reveals an aspect behind the successful symbiosis between humans and pets. We cannot ask our pets to provide the comfort and healing that they do, it’s just who they are.
We don’t make outrageous demands of one another; rather, we’re allowed to be generous with each other. Extra belly rubs all around.
About the Author: Brooke Faulkner is a writer and animal lover in Portland, Oregon. Every time she walks around her neighborhood, her goal is to pet a rogue kitty. She rarely fails.