Lending a paw: Cuddling pets boosts immunity

  • Anonna Dutt & Riddhi Doshi, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Jan 03, 2016 16:19 IST
Karan Shah, who has spinal muscular atrophy, says his pet dog helped him out of depression and gave him a career. (Photo by Kunal Patil/ Hindustan Times)

Deliberating over whether to adopt a pet or not? Doctors across Mumbai and Delhi say that a pet might keep your family happy.

“Pets are good buddies, especially for people who are lonely or dealing with psychological problems,” says Dr Achal Bhagat, senior consulting psychiatrist at Apollo healthcare “They are known to reduce stress levels and uplift your mood.”

“Three things all counsellors are taught is to be genuine, non-judgmental and to not label anyone. Pets are just like that,” says Raheen Jummani, Mumbai-based clinical psychologist. They are great companions, particularly in times of trouble and when one feels lonely. “You can talk to your pets all you want and they listen with unconditional love. These qualities work well in healing highly stressed or disturbed patients.”

According to a World Health Organisation study, conducted in 2000, around 25% people across the globe suffer from some kind of psychological problems such as anxiety, depression and even schizophrenia, says Dr Bhagat. “The cause for these troubles are of biological predisposal, old-age, substance abuse, or any other social or psychological parameter. Having a pet can help most patients.”

These animals offer great comfort through physical proximity, which is very important in healing stressed or depressed people. “A pet is always around and that helps counter loneliness. Many studies have proven that cuddling improves immunity, and pets are cuddly,” says Deepti Makhija, a Mumbai-based counsellor.

Pets are also known to help kids who are autistic. The biggest challenge that autistic kids face is communicating with others. “They neither speak, nor establish an eye contact. But with the pets the bonding is different. It is more physical. Hence, such children find it easier to connect with dogs and cats,” says Dr Sameer Malhotra, director for mental and behavioural sciences at Max Healthcare.

Nevertheless, pets are not substitutes to human beings, warn experts. They also suggest that factors such as distress over pet’s loss and spread of infections, if not taken care of well, must be considered before adopting a pet.

Karan Shah (18), a class 12 graduate and dog trainer from Mumbai talks about his experience:

My pet dog came into my life two years ago. She was gifted to me by a close family friend two years after I lost my elder brother, Mihir. He was 14, and he was also wheelchair-bound like me. We both have spinal muscular atrophy.
I was distraught then; I felt depressed all the time. I would hardly even talk to my parents.
Then this two-month-old Labrador pup was brought to us. The family friend told my parents that I needed an angel in my life, and that’s exactly what that little puppy became to me.
I would talk to her for hours. Blabber about everything I was feeling. And she would listen to me with so much interest. I started feeling better. I wasn’t lonely; I wasn’t so sad anymore.
My dog trainer then suggested that we train Angel as an assist dog, a pup who could help me take off my shoes and socks, bring me my phone, open my wardrobe. Angel does all this and more for me.
Along with Angel, I too enrolled in classes. I worked with the canine behaviourist on understanding canines and how to train them. I thoroughly enjoy doing it and have now become a canine trainer as well.
I often go with Angel to schools for special children and to those suffering from cerebral palsy. Angel plays ball with them or just sits with them or licks them and plays with them. It’s a form of therapy.
In January, I will start conducting classes to help acquaint children with dogs and show them know how great these angels are.
My dog changed my life completely. She just didn’t pull me out of my depression, but also gave me a career.
I’d rather be in a wheelchair with Angel by my side than walk without her.

Sahil Nirman adopted his first cat on a whim, but has since switched careers from sound engineer to pet stylist. (S Burrmaula/HT)

Sahil Nirman (28), pet stylist and animal activist from Delhi shares his bonding with cats:

My cats were my family in an unknown city for three years. They helped me fight loneliness and encouraged me to look after myself.
It was a rainy day in Mumbai, in 2012, when I found Meow. A street cat, he was barely a few days old and couldn’t even open his eyes. There were ants and insects all over his body. I just could not leave him there to die. So, I took him to a veterinarian and decided to adopt him.
It was a difficult decision. As a sound engineer I worked crazy hours and had no fixed routine. I had hired a cook, but hardly had any time to go home to eat. In fact, at times I used to stay holed up in the studio, in a tiny room, for days.
But, in the first two months after adopting Meow, I would rush to the apartment, a 10-minute walk away, every three hours to give him medicines. Taking care of my cat changed my life as well. I started eating on time. I felt like going home often to spend maximum time with him. If I am sane today, it is because of my pets.
Two months later, I got another street cat by the name Osca.
Meow and Osca were my family in Mumbai for three of the four years I was there. In an unknown city, with almost no human contact apart from the people I met at work, my cats provided me with immense emotional support.
I moved back to Delhi in October and am a pet stylist and animal activist now. I love animals and am also planning to open an animal shelter soon.

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