banner ad

Companion Animals on the Home Farm

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

pic 3 copy

Heidi M. Sands considers the role and benefit of a group of unique animals whose companionship can greatly improve our own quality of life

The dictionary definition for the words ‘companion animal’ is an animal kept primarily for company or protection. Usually known as pets, these are animals that provide benefits to their owners, or other animals, in ways other than financial or for agricultural use.

Most animals can be pets. From stick insects to tigers and bears, all can, and have been, kept as pets at some time or another. For the purposes of this article though, we’ll take a look at the more usual pet animals, including dogs, cats, horses, sheep and smaller creatures.

The benefits of sharing our lives with them and the positives that these animals provide are often incalculable.

Some of us are perhaps more used to keeping animals for agricultural purposes, but even animals and poultry kept primarily for food or financial reasons can be companion animals at the same time. It’s often impossible to separate the benefit that a child can gain by petting and picking up a newly hatched fluffy yellow chick (which will then go on to be a laying hen or chicken dinner), from any financial gain it may also provide for the family. The same can also be said of pet or orphan lambs. These often become very tame and stay that way as they get older, becoming almost part of the family and impossible to part with.

The most common pet animals in the UK are cats, dogs, birds and fish, with rabbits, guinea pigs, gerbils and hamsters following close behind. These often create great joy within a family, especially where children are concerned, and they give pleasure beyond reason. A family will often plan and wait for the arrival of a pet with glee. For single people a pet can become a very important part of life, and for disabled or older people it can create a lifeline, and in some cases can be the reason for getting up, getting out and engaging with other people.

A pet in the household needs care and looking after. This often fosters responsibility in children and young people, and caring for an animal is often reciprocated by the animal in question, with dogs being a perfect example. Cats are pretty good, for the most part, in a similar way, and both cats and dogs are capable of expressing their pleasure in seeing their human companion return home each day. Children may be greeted with a wag of the tail from the family dog, and cats will rub themselves against the legs of a family member who has been away for some time. A bark or mew will back up a feeling of friendship between humans and a pet, and it’s often time for a pat or a cuddle in return for the dog or cat in question.

While hamsters and other smaller pets cannot behave in the same way as a cat or a dog towards their human companions, they often display their own form of greeting. Guinea pigs will squeak or call out in reply to a human voice that they recognise, and cage birds such as budgies and others can be taught a few words which can then be oft repeated. In return, pets require care in the form of food, water, shelter and companionship of their own in the form of petting, walks and cuddles.

It’s the close contact between a pet and a human that gives one of the most recognisable benefits.

Cuddling or stroking an animal is recognised by the medical profession as a way of lowering blood pressure in certain individuals. It can also facilitate the release of feel-good endorphins, making us feel better about ourselves and things in general, and we all need some of that from time to time. By making us feel better a pet can sometimes help with depression or anxiety, thereby lessening the effects of both. It’s true to say that in some cases a pet can be therapy, and indeed pets are used in some hospitals and care homes to provide just that.

The ultimate companion animals have to be working collies, and in spite of them often seeming to be primarily a working dog, they are often really far more than that. Imagine, if you will, the farmer or shepherd out on the hill all day with only his dog at his side. This is not only his workmate but often the only living creature that he will communicate with or talk to all day. Sitting together and sharing companionable silence at lunchtime as well as a leftover crust just has to be the ultimate in companionship, and one that may go far deeper than at first perceived.

Companion animals can also be companions to other animals, both of their own species and to others. Many creatures don’t do very well living as a single animal, and horses and ponies are a very good example of this. A horse is a herd animal and wherever possible should be kept with another of its own kind, yet keeping two large horses can often be an expensive undertaking, which is why so many horses are kept company by smaller ponies, a donkey or even a goat. There are even records of racehorses travelling to racecourses with companions in order to keep them calm before an important race meeting.

Rabbits and guinea pigs are often kept together and can make excellent companions for each other. Cats and dogs can also become firm friends; our own cats, for example, have always been pals with the dogs of our household, with the cats usually in charge of a lopsided relationship. Cuddled up together in front of a warm fire on a cold winter day, they make the perfect picture.

It’s the more unusual animal relationships and companionships that hit the headlines though, and very often it’s young animals that look to older animals for company, warmth and leadership; the kitten that ends up as part of a family of piglets, or the duckling that’s adopted by a chicken, are very photogenic, but they are also unusual, and as such may well require a helping human hand in the feeding department. Although these relationships may seem slightly odd, both sides can benefit, and physical contact between one animal and another is very important from a bonding point of view.

Main pic

Can animals have friends of their own?

I think they can. They certainly miss each other when parted for a short while, and they know when a long-term companion dies. If you keep two horses together and take one out for a ride, one will very often neigh for the other, possibly becoming distressed if parted for too long. Sheep also recognise other members of their own flock, with ewes and their female offspring often grazing close to each other for most of the time. Poultry are another good example of living in harmonious companionship, especially where only small numbers are kept.  Goats and sheep will also mix well, with milking goats sometimes being used as surrogate mothers for orphan lambs, and they also provide a feeding station as well as warmth, comfort and leadership for impressionable youngsters.

Some animals are also expected to act as guardians as well as companions to others; the most obvious being guard dogs, which not only guard their owners but also other animals and livestock. Rescue dogs provide inimitable service to individuals who are lost in some of the world’s most inhospitable places. Whether it is a snow-covered peak or a war zone, these animals provide a lifeline and must be one of the best things you could ever see coming to help you in times of trouble.

Most of us will have seen guide dogs at work. These are invaluable to their owners, providing not only companionship but also access to the outside world. Similarly, trained canines can also help people with a variety of other health issues including deafness and diabetes. Horses and ponies are well known for their ability to work with disabled riders, and they can also work with young offenders to give them a better view of the world. Autistic children and youngsters also respond well to interaction with horses, ponies and donkeys, and often with surprising results.

In some parts of the world, dogs are used to guard sheep and goats from marauders such as wolves, which in one fell swoop could decimate the hard-won livestock of farmers. These dogs are brought up within the flock or herd, and learn from a very early age that the flock or herd is to be guarded at all costs.

The nearest example of this that we are likely to see in the UK is alpacas and llamas which live in close proximity to a flock of sheep. Whilst they will not usually directly defend the flock members from something like a fox attack – although they do have a powerful kick if required – they will create a racket likely to drive the threatening force off or raise the alarm to ward off intruders. Geese are a good example of birds that will guard or raise the alarm. Try walking through a farmyard you are unfamiliar with that is home to a goose or two and you’ll see what I mean. If they don’t recognise you, a goose will usually honk, flap its wings and try to physically drive you off its territory. It’s a case of being very much aware in situations like these, as if a goose takes a dislike to your presence it can see you off with some considerable force.

Companion animals can certainly make a huge difference to the lives of others, and I for one wouldn’t choose to be without them; and I bet many of you wouldn’t either.

Posted in: Dogs and Cats

Post a Comment

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This