For thousands of years, domesticated animals have been our constant companions, coming to our aid as protectors, hunters, messengers, or carriers. In today’s largely urbanized and high-tech environments, there is less need for such pragmatic helpers – yet individual animal ownership continues to be on the rise. In the USA alone, the number of pet owners has tripled since the 1970s, upping the rate of animal households to more than 60 percent. And even in the country’s most densely populated metropolis, New York City, more than 7 percent of all residents now own a dog. Or take woof-loving Paris where almost every tenth citizen walks a little mutt around town.
A lot has changed since humanity’s domestication of wolves around 14,000 years ago. Faced with urban anonymity, many metropolitans have turned to pets to compensate for their lack of social interactions. And where official restrictions impose a ban on most pet ownership – think Tokyo or Osaka – lonely hearts in need of a furry friend turn to other outlets, like Japan’s increasingly popular cat cafes. Originally a Taiwanese import, this concept soon spread to Japan, with Tokyo now boasting almost 40 of these interspecies meeting places. For a flat hourly fee, visitors can take some time out, play with the animals, or enjoy a soothing stroke. As simple as it sounds, this “therapy” works wonders for cat lovers by lowering stress and inducing a sense of calm.
In line with urban innovation – and the proliferation of new share-based business models – novel “pet rental” ventures include online portals like Borrow My Doggy, Dog Vacay, or Hannah-The Pet Society. Based on the notion of temporary pets, they take aspects like responsibility or commitment out of the equation, allowing those with little time, strict landlords, or bonding issues to get their instant pet fix anyway. By simply exchanging pets for cash or time, they remove the hurdles of actual pet ownership and offer a win-win for all involved. According to fans of Borrow my Doggy, these are “very grateful to be able to help out a neighbor, as well as fulfil their own need for some doggie snuggles.”
While animals have been part of our lives for centuries, our immediate and natural bond with flora and fauna has withered in line with urbanization and substantial social upheaval. Removed from our natural surroundings, pets can help to realign us with nature and our own feelings – an approach also picked up by therapy. First used and documented in 1961 by Dr. Boris Levinson in the UK, this animal assisted therapy (AAT) enjoys increasing popularity. Beyond its informal use in late 18th century psychiatric institutions (York Retreat, UK) or via Sigmund Freud’s trusted chow Jofi who calmed patients during psychoanalysis and helped to instil a sense of trust, 21st century examples focus on the use of pets in hospitals, homes for dementia patients, or retreats for disturbed children. And all of this is based in empirical science, according to a study by Professor Reinhold Bergler at Bonn University: People are more likely to overcome major crises with a cat at their side.
“Cats do not only make you happy, but they are also great sources of comfort and consolation, or they can serve as a problem-solving catalyst,” states Bergler. As metropolitans are especially hard-hit by loneliness, stress, and alienation, it is often cities that become proving grounds for new pet-based mental health schemes. Take New York City’s Angel On A Leash: Together with Pet Partners, they offer a pet training scheme that turns our best friends into bona fide therapeutic aids. Once their training is complete, these pets can visit hospitals, care homes, class rooms, libraries, or other institutions to brighten up someone’s day.
Other tangible benefits of pet ownership include lower risks of high blood pressure or elevated serum lipid levels. And thanks to the mandatory walks, dog owners are less likely to suffer from circulatory issues. Not to forget the psychological boost that can help to ameliorate frequent mood swings or even depression.
Well, today’s urban society might no longer share a hearth and home with dogs and horses, enjoy less space and spend most of its time at work. While none of this is likely to change anytime soon, we should nevertheless heed our basic needs. And sometimes, all this takes is a cuddly companion, motivating mover, and small commitment to get us off our sofas – and make us happy.
Text: Vanessa Obrecht
Header image: Cattari Pons/ photocase.com