Meet the pets with ‘special powers’
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Evidence is growing about the positive effects pets can have on mental and physical health. Sheena Grant finds out about a new initiative at a local care home and a 'dog dates' scheme to match older, lonely people with local dogs they can walk.
The first Friday of every month is a special day for the residents at one East Anglian care home.
That's when they get to welcome some guests who seem to have the power to impart a feeling of wellbeing, just by their presence.
Regional manager Jo Mosses started the Bark and Biscuit initiative at the Limes Care Home, Hellesdon, inviting local owners and their dogs in to meet the residents earlier this year and it proved so successful she soon had plans to extend it to Walsham Grange and Nightingale Care Home, also part of the Norfolk Care Homes group.
'I just wanted to bring the local community into the home for residents to have a bit of companionship and meet the dogs,' she says. 'It was absolutely fantastic. The residents loved it and the people who brought dogs in thought it was amazing too. It seemed to benefit everyone and so we decided to make it a monthly event and put it across to the other two homes we have.
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'The idea is so simple. People just bring in their dogs and have a cup of tea or coffee and a biscuit. The residents get talking with people, they stroke the dogs - it just engages them in new ways. I am so pleased with how it's going.'
Bark and Biscuit is one of a range of initiatives that tap into what has been referred to as the 'special power' of dogs and other companion animals to connect with people and improve their wellbeing.
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Research has long suggested interaction with dogs and other pets can bring down blood pressure, reduce stress, lower the risk of heart disease and, in the case of dogs especially, encourage activity. But as well as the physical benefits, a pet can help older people remain socially active too and connect them to a past that may involve happy memories of pet ownership, as evidenced with Bark and Biscuit.
It's not the only initiative that's capitalising on this companionship and social connectivity.
Problems caused by loneliness have come into sharper focus this year with the appointment of Britain's - and the world's - first minister for loneliness.
According to the Campaign to End Loneliness, there are 1.2 million chronically lonely older people in the UK. As well as being emotionally damaging, research shows loneliness and social isolation are harmful to physical health and can carry a premature death risk factor comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
Earlier this year, the Campaign to End Loneliness joined forces with Mars Petcare and its Pedigree brand to launch a pilot Dog Dates scheme, matching elderly people to dogs in their local area.
The first 'dog date' took place in the spring, with one participant describing the difference it had made to her life. 'Dogs definitely have a special power,' she said. 'They just give you a feeling of wellbeing.'
Being matched with a local family and their dog gave her an opportunity to socialise not only with the family, but with other dog walkers and members of the community as she took their pet for a walk.
Following the success of the pilot, Mars Petcare is now working on launching Dog Dates on a national scale.
It's one of a range of initiatives the company is involved with, exploring the therapeutic benefits pets can bring to people. Last year it launched a scheme to match pets in need of adoption with local care homes. The first successful match took place in April 2018, with Bunny the cat moving into an Essex care home.
Its Waltham research institute has been investigating the special relationship between people and companion animals for more than 40 years and works with leading scientific institutions to advance and share knowledge. Current research interests include the role of companion animals in healthy ageing and exploring how pets can contribute to optimal development in children and adolescents.
Bark and Biscuit takes place the Limes on the first Friday of the month from 11am-midday and from 2pm-3pm.
Six reasons why pets can be good for your health
1. Unconditional love: however bad your day's been, you'll have someone who depends on you to shower you with affection. The emotional bond between owner and pet can be as intense as that in many human relationships, and may confer similar psychological benefits.
2. Routine: the responsibilities that come with owning a pet can give your day purpose, reward and a sense of achievement.
3. Lower risk of heart disease: it may be that dog owners naturally do more exercise, but pets also play a role in providing social support. Owning a cat has also been associated with a reduced risk of dying from cardiovascular disease and stroke.
4. Socialising: pets can act as a social icebreaker between strangers, or as a catalyst for social interaction.
5. Boost to mental wellbeing: studies have found that dog owners are less likely to suffer from depression than those without pets. Pets can also reduce stress and anxiety levels, while playing with a dog or cat can elevate levels of the feel-good hormones serotonin and dopamine, which help you feel calm and relaxed.