Owning a pet can boost your mental health. But remember your loyal dog or cat will need your tender loving care too, says Áilin Quinlan.

One day when my son was seven years old, he got into trouble for being naughty.

Feeling immensely sorry for himself, he went out to the back garden and sat on the steps to sulk.

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Within seconds, the family dog Cleo was beside him, nestling up to him and licking his hand.

Now a strapping 21-year-old college student, my son still recalls the sense of warmth, support, and comfort he got that day from our beloved springer spaniel.

Cleo was like that with every member of the family and, when she died of old age several years later, we couldn’t bear to replace her for many years — purely because we all missed her so much. Eventually, we did get another dog, Molly, who is now just as much a part of the family.

“Studies show that children who grow up with pets have psychological and health benefits,” says vet Pete Wedderburn, who adds companion animals are also good for angst-ridden teenagers.

“Animals are non-judgemental and love us unconditionally,” explains Dr Wedderburn, who points out that a beloved pet can make us feel better about ourselves.

Walking the dog can encourage us not just to take much-needed exercise — one of the major boosters for positive mental health — but to be more sociable.

“A dog always loves you and is always pleased to see you. They don’t get into a mood or give out to you and they are very good at making us feel loved — it’s great for our psyche,” says Dr Wedderburn.

They’re great social enablers too because when you bring them for a walk and meet someone else with a dog along the way, the dogs will sniff each other and you’ll find yourself talking to the owner.

Research over the past 15 or 20 years has shown why so many people feel better around animals, says Dr Danny Holmes, spokesman for Veterinary Ireland and the Federation of European Companion Animals Veterinary Associations.

“Being with an animal increases the levels of certain happy hormones in humans, the hormones which are associated with good mood.

“It has an actual physical effect on our bodies because interacting with them creates a sense of wellbeing — they trigger the release of [the hormones] serotonin and oxytocin,” he says.

Anyone who’s ever had a dog knows just how far its companionship can go towards alleviating a sense of isolation or loneliness — something that is becoming an increasingly important issue in Irish society today where according to the 2016 census, some 400,000 people now live alone.

A pet can also help to reduce stress. Research carried out at the Centre for Human-Animal Interaction at Virgina Commonwealth University in the US backs up her point.

A pilot study suggests that healthcare professionals, who spend as little as five minutes with a therapy dog, for example, experience the same levels of stress reduction as healthcare professionals who spend 20 minutes resting quietly.

Are some breeds of dog more loyal or friendly than others?

“I’ve moved away from trying to recommend a certain breed for different people,” says Dr Wedderburn.

Dr Pete Wedderburn

Instead, his years of experience have led him to urge people to consider adopting a rescue dog as a pet.

Firstly, he says, many rescue dogs “are lovely animals who just happened to be in situations where things didn’t work out.”

Secondly, rescue centre staff are usually highly experienced at matching people to dogs.

“They have a strong interest in getting the right animal for you. If you just buy a pedigree dog the person may only want to sell the animal.”

And what about cats? Felines, says Dr Wedderburn, generally fall into one of three categories.

“There’s the soft loveable cat who wants to sit on your lap and purr. There’s the scaredy-cat who is highly strung and vanishes when visitors come into the house, and there’s the grumpy cat who wants to do its own thing and will growl and even bite.”

Cats can be a bit unpredictable, he observes. However, don’t give up hope. Get the right kind of cat and you can be very happy.

Dr Holmes points to research carried out by the Mental Health Foundation in 2011, which found that 90% of people who had a cat felt their feline had a positive impact on their mental health as a result of looking after their pet and the physical comfort that came from stroking it.

A rescue dog or cat will only cost a donation to the animal shelter – whereas to purchase a pedigree dog or cat upfront can cost hundreds of euro, depending on the breed.

And that’s only the start of the costs you can expect to face when introducing a pet to your home.

Although most animal shelters will have had your re-homed animal spayed or neutered and vaccinated and micro-chipped, there are still the costs of settling them into your home.

The basics such as a bed, food bowls, toys, and a collar, plus a lead for a dog will set you back around €100 for a dog, while the bed, food bowls, toys, a litter-tray and scratching post for a cat can add up to over €70.

You’ll also have to purchase a dog licence — €20 a year or €140 for a lifetime licence. And then you’ll have to get your pet vaccinated regularly, which varies in price but costs somewhere in the region of €35 for a dog and around the same for a cat.

Pet insurance, if you opt for it, can cost in the region of €150 a year. You will also need to consider the ongoing cost of pet-food and of course, kennel boarding fees if you go on holiday — anything from €15 a day.

Remember, having decided to get a dog, it’s not fair to leave it locked up in the house while you’re out all day — you need to make provision for its care.

It’s a good idea to either have someone who can mind the dog while you’re out, or to use a doggy day-care facility.

“It’s not fair to leave a dog alone for more than six hours a day,” says Dr Wedderburn — it will get distressed and start barking or chewing things.

Strategic use of day care can be useful, he says. Although dogs don’t need it every day, sending your pet to doggy day-care a few days a week will keep your canine socialised and active.

Given the many advantages that come with owning a pet, investing in your four-legged friend’s health and fitness can only be a win-win.

Ruby lifted me out of a dark place

Getting a dog utterly transformed day-to-day life for businesswoman Sylwia Polak.

“She just bonded with me straight away and she brought so much happiness into my life,” recalls the 27-year-old who lives in Tralee, Co Kerry with her partner and five-and-half-year old rescue dog, Ruby, who is part collie, part huskie.

“I was a bit depressed before I got Ruby. I was going through a rough patch in my personal life, and there was work stress as well. There was nothing major wrong, but I just felt a bit down.

“I decided that when the opportunity arose I’d get a dog. I was thinking about a puppy but when Ruby came along she was just perfect. I fell in love with her."

Now, 18 months after Ruby, then aged about four, entered her life, Sylwia, a Polish national who moved to Ireland about 12 years ago, says she’s happier, more confident, physically fitter, and has lost weight.

She’s dropped from a dress size 16 to a size eight, primarily she believes, because of all the exercise she takes with Ruby.

Sylwia with her dog, Ruby. Pic: Domnick Walsh © Eye Focus LTD

To ensure the big dog gets enough exercise, Sylwia, who recalls that she previously took taxis almost everywhere, walks or skateboards up to 5km several times a week with Ruby loping alongside her.

“I have always had cats but my relationship with Ruby is much closer and more hands-on,” says Sylwia, manager of Tralee’s Eurogiant store.

“When we’re out we’re meeting people along the way and they always stop for a chat. I’ve met a lot of people that way and made friends — just from walking my dog.

“When you look into her eyes you just feel the loyalty, love and peace, and you cannot help but love her.

“Ruby has lifted me out of that dark place. It’s about the companionship. We rely on each other.”

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