Pets are beneficial to all families in so many ways
Some years ago, I remember hearing my young daughter's voice coming from her bedroom. It sounded as if she was reading aloud to herself from a book. I approached her room quietly, and discovered that she wasn't reading to herself: she was reading to our pet cat, KC.
The cat was sitting on her bed gazing at her and purring, and she was petting the cat with one hand while reading the story from the book.
Studies have shown that children find it far easier to read to animals than to other humans, and easier even than reading aloud on their own. Specially trained dogs are now available to sit patiently while children with learning difficulties read to them: animal assisted therapy of this type is increasingly common.
This is just one example of the many ways that pets are beneficial to families. It's estimated that around 50% of Irish homes own pets and these have a strong positive effect on the humans whose homes they share.
A global conference in Chicago last week looked at this theme in detail. Numerous research papers were presented, each looking at a different situation. Several speakers discussed how pets can assist the physical and psychological development of children.
Others mentioned the many ways that animals can help people of all ages with various disabilities. The therapeutic value of pets was also examined in detail: Cognitive Therapy for depressed humans can be usefully supplemented by Animal Assisted Therapy (so instead of just talking to a therapist, the patient is reassured by a sympathetic Labrador).
Another paper from Japan looked at how pets can help as a communication tool for isolated elderly people within a community.
There is a long list of useful effects of pets on children. The presence of a non-judgemental, consistent, loving companion throughout the years of childhood is probably the most obvious: children grow up to be more self-assured and socially confident.
Pets also teach children about taking responsibility for others. Boys and girls learn about the need for feeding, walking and grooming the pet: this has been shown to increase their skill in caring for other humans in different situations. Some even believe that pet ownership as a child can show the seeds for good parenting skills later in life.
The physical benefits of sharing a home with an animal include a reduced risk of children developing certain allergies, fewer visits to the GP, reduced blood pressure and better physical fitness.
Some argue while there is a correlation between people with pets and people with good physical and psychiatric health, this does not prove that pets cause the benefits.
It could be that the type of people who have good health also happen to be the type of people who like having pets. The only concession that I'd make to this pedantic argument would be to agree that pets do not always bring benefits. The wrong pet in the wrong home can be a disaster. For a pet to work out well, you need to choose the right animal for the right situation.
What does this mean for a typical family? Go online, and fill in an interactive "pet selection questionnaire". You'll be asked questions like "how much space do you have", "how much free time do you have" and "what is your budget". At the end, you'll be given a list of suitable pets for your situation. If you don't have access to the internet, just visit your local vet for an old fashioned chat which will give you similar results.
For example, if everyone is working all day, and you don't have much space or money, the answer may be as simple as a couple of goldfish: these are the ideal starter pets, and they are the most popular companion animal in Ireland.
If you are working all day but you have a bit more space and money, cage birds in an indoor aviary can be a good option.
Children generally prefer more of a "hands on" pet, and pets like hamsters, gerbils and guinea pigs are also relatively low-input options that can work well in busy households. You need to remember that as an adult, you are the responsible person, and you need to do your research to ensure that the animals'' needs are properly met.
As children grow older, and if someone is at home for at least part of the day, one or two cats or rabbits can be a good choice. These can be excellent house pets, relating well to children and becoming long-term friends.
The classic pet, of course, is a dog. You do need to have somebody based at home for a significant part of the day: it's not fair to leave a dog alone for more than three or four hours at a stretch. You also need to choose the right sort of dog: again online questionnaires can guide you. My current favourite type would be a rescue dog: there are thousands of unwanted dogs in Ireland that need homes. If you visit a good animal rescue centre, they will do their best to find a dog that matches your needs, and they offer good value too: for a donation to the charity, you will usually be given a fully vaccinated, wormed, microchipped and neutered pet.
The summer is a good time to get a new family pet. if you've been half thinking of it, don't delay - do it today!