Carey was sitting on the kitchen floor; the low downlights hardly penetrating the shadows reflecting her sombre mood. It had been an incredibly tough year and she was at that point of wondering what it was all for. Her neighbours had moved out, friends were few and far between; there was hardly anyone to miss her – not immediately anyway. What was stopping her from doing something stupid with the paring knife in her hand? At that moment, the silence in her flat was punctuated by the unmistakable sound of little dog paws on tiles and then two fuzzy heads peeked out from behind the kitchen cupboard. Both her miniature pinscher and chiweenie flattened their ears against their heads and wagged nervously, but mustered all their courage to approach their teary-eyed human in that dark hole on the kitchen floor. With hands full of furry friends, there’s no room for despair and hopelessness. Carey had saved them once upon a time, and this was just their way of returning the favour. What was stopping her indeed?
For more than a century, pets – dogs in particular – have been saving humans. Whether they are trained search and rescue dogs, sniffer dogs, therapy dogs, assistance animals or the watchdogs (and cats) who sleep in our beds, companion animals have played a critical role in our survival and in our wellbeing. There are innumerable examples of search and rescue animals who have found stranded hikers or missing children, led people to safety during fires and floods, and who have performed the devastating task of recovering human remains from collapsed buildings. Sniffer dogs not only detect drugs and bombs, but more recently also cancer, diabetes and COVID-19 – providing a startlingly accurate screening service that contributes to saving lives.
But these animals don’t only play a role in the human survival of immediate threats to our safety, they change our negative behaviours. They also command control of our sympathetic nervous system and bring down our heart rate, cortisol response and blood pressure in times of stress. The real life saving happens in the long term.
On 24 June 2021 at almost 1:30 in the morning, a 12-storey condominium building in Miami, Florida succumbed to structural damages and partially collapsed. The Champlain Towers South disaster killed 98 people, injured 11 and displaced many who needed to be evacuated from a nearby building. It took more than a month for search, rescue and recovery teams, police and investigative officials to locate and identify the living and deceased victims of this tragedy. In the meantime, friends and relatives of the dead and missing arrived in Florida to await news of their loved ones. The United Cajun Navy, a rescue group, requested that its volunteers bring their therapy dogs to the scene to help those dealing with the trauma of the disaster.
In scenes recorded in the days following, people can be seen walking up to the dogs – German shepherds, poodles, Labradors and mixed breeds – and, without hesitation, petting and talking to them, allowing them to release their emotions and better handle the stress of the situation.
The National Institutes of Health in the USA as well as research groups in Europe and Japan have conducted ongoing research for more than 10 years into the benefits of human-animal interactions. They have conclusively found that pets (dogs, cats, birds, rabbits, guinea pigs, etc.) help to lower cortisol levels (reducing the stress response), improve owners’ cardiovascular health, lower blood pressure, and improve mental health and social interaction. Much of this has been linked to pets’ (and especially dogs’) innate ability to sense and interpret human speech and tone of voice, body language, and mood.
When you’re stressed out, depressed or anxious and your pet approaches you, this is often an invitation to interact with them – touch and pet them, receive the calm they exude and benefit from the increase in dopamine and oxytocin that takes place when interacting with a pet (as documented in a review article for Frontiers in Psychology, “Psychosocial and psychophysiological effects of human-animal interactions: the possible role of oxytocin”). This means that pets tap into the very systems that control our emotional and hormonal responses to stress, and stabilise them to improve our wellbeing. How do they do this? By simply being present, loving unconditionally, encouraging touch and social interaction, and giving their full and complete attention.
In May 2021, the UK’s Medical Detection Dogs and the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and Durham University confirmed that bio-detection dogs were able to identify the SARS-CoV-2 virus in a COVID-19-positive person. Not only that, but they had a 94% accuracy rate and a detection speed of less than a second. Any person identified as COVID-19-positive by the bio-detection dogs would then be tested to determine a medically accurate diagnosis.
The implications of this finding are that medical detection dogs can provide a fast, cheap and very wide screening service that would mitigate the use of so many PCR and lateral-flow test kits. This will save time, money and precious resources, and also help to curb the spread of COVID-19 in places like airports, shopping malls and at large group events.
From medical contribution, search and rescue, therapy and assistance, as well as pet companionship, our pets are the heroes of our world. Whether it’s a guide dog leading her handler across a busy street or helping with everyday functions in the home, or an adopted pet encouraging his owner to go out on more daily walks and improving heart health and fitness; our pets change and improve our behaviour and ultimately our lives. Pet owners have fewer bouts of depression, lower blood pressure, better cardiovascular health, fewer doctors’ visits, and are reportedly less lonely. More exercise with a pet also increases endorphins and helps pet owners to sleep better. Generally, a well-cared for pet improves the quality of our lives and theirs. It’s the ultimate symbiosis.
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