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The Surprising Health Benefits of Time Spent With Animals

November 04, 2021

Non-human creatures are great company — and as researchers are learning, the quality time we spend with them (yes, even watching cute videos!) is all kinds of important. What we now know about our relationships with animals will amaze you.

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Photo: Shutterstock

Interacting With Animals Can Make Us Better People

What do other species mean to us (and vice versa)? To get at the heart of the matter, we turned to Kathy Stevens, co-founder of Catskill Animal Sanctuary a 150-acre refuge in New York’s Hudson Valley where, for the past two decades, thousands of animals have found love and peace after lives full of cruelty and neglect. “Spending time with animals reminds us of our responsibility to right the wrongs our species has created, but also of what's important — love and connection, regardless of outward differences like class or race or species,” she says. “Animals are teachers and friends, sources of solace and inspiration, and perhaps most importantly, reminders of our moral obligation as caretakers of the planet. That's how they've changed our lives — they keep us grounded in what matters.” Read on to meet some of the Sanctuary's residents — and to learn just how lucky we are to share the planet with them.

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Photo: Catskill Animal Sanctuary

Animals Could Be Therapeutic Aids for Children With Autism

In a pioneering Australian study, researchers measured physiological arousal, an indicator of social anxiety, in trios of 5- to 12-year-old children interacting in classroom-like activities such as reading aloud, reading silently and engaging in play. In peer interactions where guinea pigs were present (as opposed to peer interactions where toys were present), children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) displayed reduced arousal and increased positive emotion — which leads researchers to believe that animals could function as “social buffers” in therapeutic settings for them.

Above: Laverne, a once-neglected ewe rescued from Massachusetts, gave birth to her lamb, Davey, after arrival and gained fame at Catskill Animal Sanctuary as an ultra-attentive mama.

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Photo: Janet Holmes for Catskill Animal Sanctuary

Seeing Birds Can Make Us as Happy as Getting a Raise

If you’ve experienced the pandemic-era thrill of discovery at the end of a pair of binoculars, you’re in good company. To learn more about that thrill, scientists from the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research crunched the numbers from a survey of 26,000 people in 26 European countries. They found that a 10 percent increase in species diversity — that is, seeing 14 additional bird species in their vicinity — increased respondents’ life satisfaction at least as much as 10 percent more money in their household accounts each month. If rare birds don’t flock to your neighborhood, don’t despair: English researchers have found that bird abundance (as opposed to variety) is associated with lower levels of negative mental health indicators.

Above: Sabine and Giselle survived a fall from a transport truck on the highway. They’re now the best of friends and enjoy life on the Sanctuary’s pond.

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Photo: Catskill Animal Sanctuary

Spending Time on a Farm Can Protect Against Childhood Asthma

Colonizing bacteria known as microbiota “educate” our immune systems in how to respond to the outside world. German scientists analyzed bacteria samples from more than 700 infants who spent part of their earliest months on traditional farms and found that those youngsters had especially mature and effective gut bacteria — gut bacteria that could actually help protect their lungs (and help explain why children who grow up on a farm have a lower risk of developing allergies and asthma).

Above: Merida and Kevin were rescued from neglect. Now that they’re all grown up, you can find them delighting in mud baths in warmer months.

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