My pet, my friend
For Shanghai's growing aged population, a pet makes a precious friend -- and offers unexpected health benefits.
The choice of pet is often a reflection of personality: a loyal puppy, a naughty kitty, a noisy parrot or quiet, colorful fish. But whatever the choice, animals bring the family a certain kind of life -- just as if a new member had been added.
``When I pet my soft, warm cat, Mimi, or play fetch with her, I feel relaxed and my heart grows warmer,'' says Cao Lingxi, a retired local woman in her 60s. With several decades of experience raising cats, Cao has been dubbed ``cat mom'' by her friends. ``I really regard these lovely creatures as family members. Without their companionship, I shudder to think what I would do all day in this big, empty house, as my children have moved out,'' she adds.
Cao is definitely not alone. Today, there are around 2.5 million elderly people who are aged above 60 years old in Shanghai, of whom 1 million are single, leading independent lives like Cao. Loneliness is a factor for many of them, and the answer, very often, comes in the form of a pet. Scientists have noticed the same thing, and they've started to explore the complex way that animals affect human emotions and physiology.
The Companion Animal Research and Information Center (CARIC), a non-profit organization that promotes responsible pet ownership, has just conducted a research jointly with the Psychology College of Beijing Normal University. The result shows that keeping a pet significantly benefits health, and may help elderly owners live longer, healthier and more enjoyable lives. ``Pets have always played a role as loyal assistants and companions for humans,'' says Amy Liu, CARIC's director.
``In the last 30 years, there has been increasing research worldwide that prove that companion animals can increase self-respect and survival ability in humans.'' Experts have found that loneliness can be harmful to old people's physical health and mental well-being, even triggering potential ailments. Keeping optimistic and relaxed is important for the elderly to enjoy their sunset years. ``Before I started raising this lovely puppy, I spent most of the day in a daze, worrying about my rapidly depleting energy and increasing wrinkles,'' says an 80-something woman, surnamed Tao. ``But everything changed when I got Meimei.
Seeing her happily wagging her tail to me, I feel that I am still needed. It's a wonderful feeling which has given me great inspiration, particularly after my husband's death several years ago.'' Statistics from the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences indicate that companion animals now exceed 1 million, and the number is still growing annually. Old people taking their pets for a walk are a common sight in local neighborhoods these years.
Although some disdain the little creatures, citing noise and environmental pollution, experts say that there are definite psychological benefits for pet owners: They are better to remain emotionally stable during crises. Particularly for the lonely elderly, pets can even work as a buffer against social isolation.
``The elderly usually have low confidence in their energy and health condition and always make excuses not to leave the confines of their home,'' says doctor Zhang Jianping, an expert on companion animals. ``But when they walk their dogs in the community, they have the chance to meet many people and pets, which makes a good ice-breaker. This can help combat depression and relieve loneliness.'' How do pets bring about all these health benefits?
On a practical level, ``pets need walking, feeding, grooming and fresh water, and they encourage lots of playing and petting,'' Zhang points out.
``Even if it's just getting up to let a dog out a few times a day or brushing a cat, the activity can benefit the owners' cardiovascular system and help keep joints limber and flexible. In addition to offering emotional comfort, pets also help seniors stick to regular routines such as getting up early in the morning and going outside in the fresh air.'' Of course, pets are not only beneficial to the elderly. Animals also make wonderful pals for young people, combating stress in this fast-paced world.
Wu Jin, a 20-something white-collar worker, has raised a big dog for many years. He admits that every time he goes back home after a busy workday, the sight of the dog, waiting for him beside the window, moves him a lot. ``Aware that my loyal friend is concerned about me, I feel warm and happy,'' Wu says, beaming. ``Thus, my tiredness from the work always magically disappears at that time. Additionally, taking care of the dog has also made me more considerate and warm-hearted.'' Recently, a pet Website (www.petzone.cn) was launched by a 20-something girl, whose name on the Internet is ``Youyou.''
The Website has more than 350 registered members, who regularly log on to exchange their pet-keeping experiences and feelings. Anyone who has problem with their furry friends can resort to the Website for information and help. ``It seems like a big family where pets are the basic emotional ties connecting each of us,'' says Youyou. ``There are many good friends here, who have one thing in common: a deep affection for these lovely animals.
If not for our pets, we would never know each other. Besides, the Website is also a platform for us to release our heavy working strain.'' Even many foreigners who live and work in Shanghai don't forget to take their pets here. Richard Brown, a 30-something British, has three dogs that are 8 months old. With them Brown has to spend at least two hours on food and walk. But he never complains. ``The dogs are our children,'' Brown smiles.
``Give them a good solid education, teach them to respect others and love them, you will get a wonderful friend and companion for life that does not demand things in return.'' On the flip side, pets are also a serious responsibility. It requires attention to hygiene and regular vaccinations; ignoring this can result in severe health problems like skin allergies and canine madness, which is fatal. ``As far as I know, some owners never vaccinate their animals and pay little attention to the disinfection of their house, which may lead to potential health threats,'' Dr Zhang adds.
``Owners should remember that ultimately, they are responsible for the safety and health of their `sweethearts' and of themselves, as well.'' Tips For Keeping Pet 1. Make your home a safe environment. A pet owner needs to be aware of several potential dangers. Poisons in the home that can kill or seriously injure your pet include some kinds of house plants (dieffenbachia, philodendron and hyacinth), pesticides and medications. Low electrical cords are extremely hazardous when chewed. Keep harmful objects out of your pet's reach. 2. Make sure your pet receives a complete checkup. Preventive vaccinations and early detection of diseases are the keys to successfully treating your pet. 3. Design a diet and exercise plan to meet your pet's specific needs. Exercise is important, but a pet will only exercise if there is an incentive. Your veterinarian will consider what stage of life your pet is in, the amount of activity your pet enjoys. 4. Don't expose your pet to bitter cold, or it is likely to become lethargic, depressed, weak and hypothermic. 5. Remember that even the most gentle and trusting pet may bite when in pain. If you must muzzle, use a soft towel or cloth strips and remove it as soon as possible so the pet can breathe more easily. 6. If you must transport an injured or ill animal, a blanket, vinyl mat, and even a door make excellent stretchers. The trick is to immobilize the animal to avoid further stress.