It’s no secret that we love our pets. Even those of us who don’t have any aren’t opposed to taking YouTube breaks to search for puppies learning to walk, cats curling themselves into bizarre shapes, and all sorts of other critters getting up to no good. As it turns out, spending time with our four-footed friends isn’t only great for a break now and then, it’s also good for our health and, more importantly, our happiness.
In 7 Ways Dogs Improve Your Health, we explored some of the greatest health benefits of having a dog. From improving mental health and reducing stress, to getting more exercise and improving heart health, the benefits of having a dog around are just “icing on an already-sweet cake,” (as Lynn Marie Hulsman put it). So it holds to reason that something—or someone—that makes us healthier would also make us happier.
Mel Spera, a veteran of the U.S. Army, is a self-ascribed “Service-Connected Disabled Veteran Small Business Owner, who is owned by a very special dog.” After a service-related disability forced Spera to resign, she (along with her dog, Parker) started her own copywriting business: Parker’s Voice. Naturally, Parker holds the prestigious title of “President, Home Security Specialist and Chief Dishwasher.” When asked if having a pet was a pathway to happiness, Spera answered, “Just having Parker makes me happy.” She explained how he gets each day off to a good start and encourages the pair to exercise by “walking and playing ball,” since he’s trying to lose his winter weight.
Lynette Whiteman, Executive Director of Caregiver Canines—a New Jersey nonprofit that provides elderly, home-bound individuals with visits from therapy dogs—explains that spending time with animals can have a significant impact on wellbeing: “These dogs’ visits definitely add a great deal of happiness to very lonely people who, because of health or financial reasons, can no longer care for a dog.” For these people, having “their dog,” or adopted “grand-dog,” come to visit is a wonderful thing to look forward to.
Not only have volunteers noticed the positive impact of Caregiver Canines, but researchers Cheryl A. Krause-Parello PhD, RN, FAAN and John Kolassa PhD have even found a link between therapy dogs and enhanced wellness in older adults. The study, which used Caregiver Canines as its main participant, found that the collaborative efforts of nursing staff, healthcare teams, and pet therapy programs “have potential to improve social and cardiovascular wellness, self-health empowerment, and enhance cardiovascular health in older adults living in the community.”
But it isn’t just dogs that provide us with a sense of happiness and well-being. For some people, other animals, like birds, reptiles, amphibians, and arachnids, can be just as helpful. Celeste Henkelmann, founder of Reptiles Lounge—an online community, supply store, and virtual guidebook for owners of reptiles and amphibians—began her “passion project” because of the positive impact that her lizard, Igby, had on her mental health. Henkelmann explained that after her boyfriend began traveling for work, she “became depressed and anxious,” so she decided to find a pet to keep her company. Due to allergies, dogs and cats were out of the question, but as soon as she saw Igby in the pet store, she knew she had found her solution. “After having Igby for 8 months,” she said, “I can tell you that no other healthcare tactic has made as much of a positive impact as my little scaly friend.”
In addition to finding personal well-being with her new pet, Henkelmann also discovered an entire reptile community. Within a few months of creating an Instagram account and sharing pictures of Igby, Henkelmann found her following growing rapidly. “I have hundreds of followers,” she said, “whom I all know by name. Once, I posted that I was having a bad day, and several followers messaged me about it immediately. I don’t believe this level of community exists in social media with traditional pets. With a small network of reptile enthusiasts, it is easy to gain new friends and support.”
From improving our health, to creating socialization opportunities, to providing inspiration, our pets can be a valuable asset to our well-being and happiness. So whether you’re looking for a community, a comedian, or just a companion, a pet might be the perfect prescription for you.
Header image by Crystal Marie Sing