Paws for thought

If you’ve been watching TV just lately you may have watched the robot season that has been on in the UK, love them or hate them they are coming is the overall message, personally, I’m not keen unless it can cook and do the housework, then you can count me in as a convert.

What was interesting for me watching these programmes were how we can get attached to objects that are not human and feel genuine happiness from it. One particular programme showed ownership of robots and how those people had attached a persona to the robot, and how it had become part of their daily life with companionship. One lady had a robot dog, this had come about after her husband had died and she had bought the robotic dog for company, it wasn’t just a few months ago, this was over a decade ago, and she was very attached to it. She was well known at the repair centre because she was so active with the dog playing with it for up to 4 hours a day, to the extent that it regularly needed maintenance. For some of us this may sound bizarre but when loneliness is a high factor in our society, although we are more connected than ever we show that in reality we often aren’t. These robots were giving people a connection that they weren’t getting in their real-life friendships or couldn’t create with the people around them. It’s clear that we have less time than ever to connect with people, often people feel isolated and lonely even when they seem surrounded by friends because they can’t talk to those people in the way they need to, or connect with them. You could see this is where some of these robots were filling a gap.

Then as bizarre as life can be nowadays thanks to the internet, I find that the latest trend is CryptoKitties which apparently are the new rage in the gaming/cryptocurrency world. A little like Pokemon except it’s using blockchain technology, a little like a Tamagotchi in regards to that you have to look after your cat and help it to grow so that you can breed, and create a business from it. Taking up potentially as much time as a real animal, the main benefit is that you get to spend time with your new feline friends on your terms, let’s face it cats can be fickle at the best of times. For me, I can see the benefit mainly being for rescue centres, that once you are bored the animal isn’t left unloved and without a home.

But more seriously this connection that we need is very real and for most of us we often add a pet into our companion or friendship group, whether it’s a dog, cat, cockatoo, parrot, rat, guinea pig, rabbit, snake or gerbil, and kids are one of the main reasons people end up with pets. I remember I had a gerbil that I brought home from school as everyone did that year, of course, it escaped, which I think is obligatory to happen to the school gerbil. I wonder how many teachers when they let the gerbil go for that week-long break thought they will actually see it again because it must happen to everyone. This beautiful white gerbil got into the back of the sofa and by the time my parents had extracted it from running around the house, the pipes, and under the floorboards it was black. It would have been funny except of course at that age it’s a complete disaster and life feels like it’s going to be over. The rest of the week I spent it watching and stroking the gerbil as much as it would let me which was a lot.

Since then we had Sid Vicious, a hamster which ate my mother’s Marks and Spencer dining room curtains. Technically it was her fault she had hoovered and pushed him up against them, he enjoyed great quality M&S bedding that week thanks to my mother and her curtains. Although my mother didn’t like him, she named him and would talk away to him whilst he would be running around the cage, or in his wheel because he was near the table where she worked. So you could hear a conversation with my mother and my hamster and I’m sure that most people talk to their pet, and know the idiosyncrasies of their animals responses to them by just looking at them.

Animals also love social connection, my whippet loves to sit with me, on me, by the side of me, in fact anywhere near me, unless I’m in the bath, then he’s nowhere to be found. It’s shown that most people in surveys consider their pet as a member of the family, no different than those who owned the robot felt, and you have to think about how Amazon is integrating Alexa into a lot of people’s lives by giving it a name.

I recently read that in an American care home the care director found that by adding animals and plants to the environment the level of activity increased with those in care, as well as the medication reduced. In Holland, they introduced children and students into a nursing home and the residents again became more active. They started to give advice to the students and reading to the children even the most inactive changed over the time of the project.

So you have to consider how important connection is, removing someone’s pet could be something you may wish to reconsider if they are elderly and it’s their main companion.

The first documented case for using animals in therapy was in 1792, William Tuke a Quaker ran a mental health institution in York and introduced animals in part of the therapy, by incorporating them into the patient’s everyday lives. He found that farm animals lessened the need for drugs and restraints, and he was groundbreaking because until that point people were mostly restrained and treated appallingly. In mental institutions in Europe during the 1900’s companion animals were used to help the patients with great success. More recently in the 1960s, a therapist called Boris Levinson wrote a paper called The Dog as Co Therapist and it realises how important an animal can be in helping someone move forward in their life.

Pets are shown to improve health, reduce depression, help with calming the body down, reduce blood pressure, and of course in regards to a dog, keep you physically fit. Those who have a dog and who have a heart attack are more likely to be alive a year later, than their non pet owning counterparts. Cat owners have fewer strokes than non-cat owners, those who watch fish are shown to be able to slow their heart rate down and become calmer. Stroking an animal in many studies is shown to reduce anxiety levels and caring for a pet is also important, it’s been shown that having to care for something other than yourself can be very beneficial for people with depression. A 30-minute session of calm stroking of your dog can raise your endorphins and reduce your cortisol levels, so although the dog might need a good walk when you get in from work, you might want to sit down at some point and just pet your pet to reduce your stress levels.

We intuitively know that loving and caring for a pet is good for us, it’s a bond that a pet owner understands, and so I wonder if the rise of the robots will include ones where we have to care for them and they in return help us in a therapeutic way.

Remember to wash your hands after handling pets, don’t let them lick your face if you can help it, ideally don’t let them sleep in your bed with you because they can pass on parasites and worms.



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