Pets are so good for human health that they should be available on prescription: there's evidence that they bring more benefits than many commonly used medications.
Domesticated animals play a role in improving both the physical and psychological well-being of people of all ages, but there are particular benefits for the elderly.
A new pet-fostering initiative set up by the Dublin SPCA and Home Instead Senior Care has recently been launched, bringing the benefits of animal companionship to older people without burdening them with the complications of full-time, permanent pet ownership.
As a vet in practice, I see the results for myself on a daily basis. One instance stands out in my memory.
Delia O'Connor lived alone in south County Dublin, with her beloved Cavalier King Charles Spaniel called Pal. He was beside her for every moment of the day and night. I did regular house calls to Ms O'Connor, and she'd talk to Pal as I did routine procedures like clipping his nails.
Ms O'Connor eventually had to move into a nursing home, but Pal was allowed to move in with her and remained by his mistress's side until the day she died.
Plenty of scientific research confirms the fact that pets are good for us, but the jury is still out when it comes to working out how they exert their benevolent effect on our lives. Perhaps it's simply that we humans are social beings who enjoy companions. Indeed, pets can often be more enjoyable housemates than humans: cats don't have grumpy moods and dogs never ignore you because they're watching television or reading the paper.
The time has come for those responsible for helping older people to see pets as an important piece of the patchwork of care that can no longer be ignored.
Ten ways that pets can improve human health
1. Pets encourage people to exercise. If you have a dog, you need to take it for a regular walk.
It's recommended that the average dog should be given 25 minutes of exercise twice daily, and there's no doubt that many people would not head off down the street, into the park or along the beach if they didn't have a dog to accompany them.
2. They act as social catalysts, boosting our mental health by connecting us with other people. The most obvious example of this is when you take your dog for a walk. It's very easy for people to strike up a conversation with you by commenting on your animal ("He's magnificent: what breed is he?")
3. Research shows that children who grow up with pets are more confident and more socially adept than those without animals in their lives.
4. Pets can be especially helpful for children with psychological difficulties. Pet therapy started in the 1960s after a psychiatrist observed the rapid progress that took place when he was accompanied by his dog in sessions with severely withdrawn children.
The dog served as an ice-breaker, softening the children's defences and providing a focus for communication.
5. Prison inmates who are allowed to take care of birds and small animals become less isolated, less violent and more responsible.
6. Pet-ownership reduces the risk of heart disease. Petting a dog or a cat, or even just being in the same room as an animal, can have a calming effect on people, reducing blood pressure and heart rate.
7. They improve recovery rates in humans after certain types of surgery. One study followed the progress of human patients who had undergone major heart surgery. Patients who shared their lives with animals lived for significantly longer than those who did not keep pets.
8. Pets are helpful when dealing with psychiatric illness, including depression. They've been shown to build self-esteem, increase mental alertness, and they also lift the spirits of people with Alzheimer's disease.
9. They help older people to be more self-reliant. One study measured how many hours of 'paid care worker time' were needed for elderly people living alone. At the start, an average of 40 hours a week of human help was needed per patient. Six months after each patient had been given a pet, the amount of carer time had reduced to about 10 hours per week.
10. When pets are allowed to visit nursing homes, there's a strong positive effect, with elderly residents smiling and talking more, and experiencing more symptoms of well-being. In Ireland, an organisation called PEATA (www.peata.org) offers this type of pet-therapy service.
Pete Wedderburn's books 'My Dog Thinks He's Human' and 'My Cat Is Ignoring Me' (both €6.90) are available at bookshops nationwide. They can also be ordered at www.petethevet.com