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It is World Pet Day today. Actually, according to some sources it is World Animal Day, which is a significantly wider concept, but for the sake of this post let’s stick to pets.

The decision to get a pet can be quite a significant one. For many it’s a no-brainer, they couldn’t fathom the idea of not having a pet in the house. But at the same time it is a huge responsibility – more so than many people unfortunately realise.  Personally, being a freelance photographer who is regularly away from home on assignments across New Zealand, a pet would complicate things – I need to maintain a lock-up-and-go lifestyle. And having to check your pet into a kennels or cattery each time is a traumatic experience of both pet and owner.

Pets can have various health benefits, not least of all the fact that they make you get out and exercise more.
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There’s a lot to be said for getting a pet. According to an article in the Los Angeles Times, for example, Dr Froma Walsh of the Center for Family Health at the University of Chicago says that “having a pet can meet many human psychosocial needs and has been undervalued in the field of mental health.” Pets reduce stress through the companionship and unconditional love they give their owners. According to Dr Walsh, heart attack survivors who have pets are likely to live longer. Relationships with pets help people through hard times and “provide connectedness in an era when family connections are fragmented.”

There’s a plethora of articles claiming health benefits from pet ownership – these range from decreased risk of heart attack and lower blood pressure, to positive psychological benefits.  I am sure most pet lovers will agree that their pets are beneficial to their health and well-being.

Interestingly enough, however, a recent article from the New York Times suggest that the health benefits of pet ownership may have been overstated. For the elderly, in particular, a cat or a dog can be a potential risk – Judy Stevens of the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention is quoted as saying “Over 86,000 people per year have to go to the emergency room because of falls involving their dogs and cats, and these fractures can be devastating for the elderly.” Harold Herzog, Professor of Psychology at Western Carolina University, furthermore refers to studies that show the more attached elderly people are to their pets, the more depressed they are, that people with strong social networks are not made happier by their pets, and that adolescents with pets reported more psychological problems than those without.

The one area where there does not appear to be an argument is that pet owners, or dog owners to be exact, tend to be more active – according to a Canadian study dog owners walked almost twice as much per week as their dog-free counterparts. And that is definitely a good thing.

Personally I don’t think it is possible to make blanket statements about the benefits (or not) of pets – it probably comes down to personal preference, with the level of benefit derived from a pet being different for different personality types. I do, however, strongly believe that if you do get a pet, you make a multi-year commitment that you need to be sure you can honour – the pet depends on you for love and care and there are way too many abused and abandoned pets already.

So for all the pet owners out there – happy Pet Day, and look after them well. And for the rest of you – go out and get some exercise! 🙂

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