Gordon Walker, a science teacher at St George's high school in Blackpool, relies on his two black Labradors to keep him sane. At the end of a hard day at school, he says, "I'll talk the day through with them. I might say, 'I lost it a bit today Ginnie'. Dogs have very real facial expressions, a look in the eye or a twitch of the ears. They've got a better attention span than some of the kids I teach. If I'm happy and joyful the dogs will bounce along, but if I'm down they will lie down in a submissive way as if to apologise for my bad day, which is a great comfort."
Mr Walker, who returned to teaching in 1994 after 24 years in the army, says teaching at St George's - where 43 per cent of pupils have free school meals - can be tough. "If I've had to remove a child to the 'withdraw room' to cool down, I've failed because I've lost control. After a day like that I'll take the dogs to the beach as soon as I get home. It's incredibly therapeutic - throwing a ball for them across the sand releases tension."
Many animal experts agree with him. They say pet ownership can be a route to mental and physical health; not just as therapy for the disabled, sick and elderly, but as comfort for people with stressful occupations and lifestyles. Around one household in two now includes a pet. While dog ownership has fallen slightly in recent years, cat ownership has risen by about one-third over the past 20, largely due to changing work patterns and the relatively undemanding nature of cats.
Animal behaviourist Dr Roger Mugford believes that owning a pet can reduce stress and anxiety, although the decision to get a pet isn't always health-led. Many people, he says, get a dog or cat because they are lonely.
"Dogs are good listeners," he says. "Their mood-detecting abilities mean they can help teachers through, for example, a pre-Ofsted crisis. Their owners, who may be feeling unloved, find this outpouring of affection has a huge effect on their stress levels." Dr Mugford says dog owners have fewer ulcers, lower blood pressure and are less susceptible to heart disease than those who lack four-legged company. Pet owners generally "incur significant life-coping benefits".
He particularly recommends dogs for teachers. "Teachers have to set standards and be so sensible most of the time. They can really let go with a dog and play and be silly. Cats are less interactive."
Vet Liz Ormerod, a board director of the Society for Cmpanion Animal Studies (SCAS), disagrees. "Dogs require a high degree of commitment," she says. "Rats are good, and their behaviour is quite like that of a dog: they are very interactive, they like to play, and they enjoy human company."
But she concedes that at times nothing can quite beat a dog. "They know instinctively when their owner needs comfort. A dog that doesn't usually go into certain rooms will seek out its owner if it detects that he or she is feeling sad. Dogs can save your sanity."
Many people who live alone find a feline presence can be a comfort, simply because it's another heartbeat in the house. The charity Cats Protection has just launched Cats Add Life, a campaign to promote the health benefits of owning a mog, particularly for single people and others prone to loneliness and stress.
Kay McKinney, a teacher at St Luke's primary in Chadderton, Oldham, has two cats, a border collie dog, two guinea pigs and a cockatiel (as well as three daughters and a husband). "I'll use the dog as an escape route to get away from the house when I need to and clear my head," she says, "whereas the guinea pigs are comforters. They just lie in your lap and you cuddle them for as long as you want. They don't jump off like cats. They are so placid and soothing, I use them to calm myself down. Pets help you to switch your mind off from the rush at the end of the day."
Ms McKinney admits to having a "love-hate" relationship with her cats. "They're like royalty and are very selfish, but they are amusing and I find their behaviour absorbing. I love their grace and beauty. But I get different things from all of them. You know where you are with animals." She takes her bird and the guinea pigs into school during the week so her class can enjoy them too. "They are great at teaching children to be gentle and cautious. A little boy who is normally quite rough will sit down and brush the pigs with a toothbrush and feed them milk from a teaspoon. Pets teach children how to nurse. But I get so much out of the cockatiel, knowing that such a vulnerable, delicate creature trusts me enough to let me put it in a box for the trip to school. It's such an honour, I find it really rewarding."
CATS ADD LIFE
Cats Protection claims "feline therapy" is an antidote to the stress of modern life and that the pet-owner bond brings "positive physiological and psychological benefits" to humans. It says the benefits of cat ownership include:
* a boost to self-esteem
Cats Protection, tel: 01403 221934