Animals and mental health
The secret mental health weapon
Animals and mental health have always been related but the true benefits have only recently been researched. The in-depth rewards of animals on your mental health certainly aren’t given enough air-time. Of course, it helps if you like animals. When I spend time with my Yorkshire Terrier, Socks, I can immediately feel the benefits. I relax, my blood pressure lowers (yes, I’m the geek that has tested it) and my focus is more on the present moment than on regrets about the past or worries about the future. Being mindful is immensely important for robust mental health, and being focused in the present moment also means I avoid sloppy french kisses from Socks!
A sense of purpose
Most pet owners will agree that having a pet helps them to focus on something other than themselves. It gives you a sense of purpose and for those who suffer from depression, a pet offers structure. If you can’t get out of bed for yourself, you will have to get up for your pet. Pets need looking after and this gives us a responsibility over and above looking after ourselves. This structure and responsibility is a fantastic antidote to depression. Having a pet also gets you into the habit of getting out in the fresh air (if you have a dog) as dogs need to be walked. It’s very rewarding to see hoe appreciative your dog is when they get their walks – such a treat for them.
Even though a pet can’t engage in conversation, they make wonderful companions. Socks doesn’t live with me anymore because I became allergic to him (itchy red eyes, sneezing and asthma) but when I do spend the odd night with him I don’t feel lonely at all. Pets make great listeners! He is very affectionate and follows me from room to room. He has the loveliest nature.
Studies on animals and mental health have found that:
- Pet owners are less likely to suffer from depression if they own a pet
- People with pets have lower blood pressure in stressful situations than those without pets. One study even found that when people with borderline hypertension adopted dogs from a shelter, their blood pressure declined significantly within five months.
- Playing with a dog or cat can elevate levels of serotonin and dopamine, which calm and relax.
- Pet owners have lower triglyceride and cholesterol levels (indicators of heart disease) than those without pets.
- Heart attack patients with pets survive longer than those without.
- Pet owners over age 65 make 30 percent fewer visits to their doctors than those without pets.
- While people with pets often experience the greatest health benefits, a pet doesn’t necessarily have to be a dog or a cat. Even watching fish in an aquarium can help reduce muscle tension and lower pulse rate.
One of the reasons for these therapeutic effects is that pets fulfill the basic human need for touch. Even hardened criminals in prison show long-term changes in their behavior after interacting with pets, many of them experiencing mutual affection for the first time. Stroking, hugging, or otherwise touching a loving animal can rapidly calm and soothe you when you’re stressed or anxious.
The effect pets have on Alzheimer’s disease
How pets help adults with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia
As part of the disease, Alzheimer’s patients may exhibit a variety of behavioral problems, many related to an inability to deal with stress.
- Research at the University of California at Davis concluded that Alzheimer’s patients suffer less stress and have fewer anxious outbursts if there is a dog or cat in the home.
- Pets can provide a source of positive, nonverbal communication. The playful interaction and gentle touch from a well-trained, docile animal can help soothe an Alzheimer’s patient and decrease aggressive behavior.
- In many cases a patient’s problem behavior is a reaction to the stressed response of the primary caretaker. Pets can help ease the stress of caregivers. Cats or caged animals may be more suitable than dogs, which generally require more care and can add to the burden of someone who’s already looking after an Alzheimer’s patient.
It’s no surprise that 98% of pet owners consider their pet to be a member of the family. Not only are people happier in the presence of animals, they’re also healthier. In a survey of pet owners, 74% of pet owners reported mental health improvements from pet ownership, and 75% of pet owners reported a friend’s or family member’s mental health has improved from pet ownership.
Human-animal bond research
The field of human-animal bond research is dedicated to studying the health benefits of pets and human-animal interaction. Positive human-animal interaction is related to the changes in physiological variables both in humans and animals, including a reduction of subjective psychological stress (fear, anxiety) and an increase of oxytocin levels in the brain. Science demonstrates that these biological responses have measurable clinical effects.
Specifically, pets and therapy animals can help alleviate stress, anxiety, depression, and feelings of loneliness and social isolation. Interactions with animals can help people manage their long-term mental health conditions. A 2016 study explored the role of pets in the social networks of people managing a long-term mental health problem and found that pets provide a sense of security and routine that provided emotional and social support. Studies have also shown that pets are facilitators of getting to know people, friendship formation and social support networks.
The Human Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI) is working hard to increase our knowledge of the health benefits of pets. Over the past four years, HABRI has funded approximately $2 million in research projects all aimed at exploring the health benefits of human-animal interaction in three broad categories; child health and development, healthy aging, and mental health and wellness. HABRI Central, HABRI’s online database, houses, classifies and archives research and information on the science of the human-animal bond, and is home to more than 28,000 resources.
If you feel lonely or need motivation, other than for yourself, to get up and do more, a pet may be the answer. It goes without saying though that a pet is a life-long commitment and this wouldn’t be ideal for you, perhaps you could consider volunteering to be around animals one day a week. There are also services such as “borrow my doggy” where you can help busy owners by walking their dog or pet sitting.
I miss my dog when I don’t see him and I feel so much happier after spending time with him. Perhaps it’s something that would brighten your life too.