Isolation is a natural reaction to depression and grief. If you’re in the depths of depression, it can be hard to pick up the phone and call a friend. If you’ve lost of a loved one, lost your good health, or lost a relationship, you may pull inward and grieve alone.
But just because isolation is natural doesn’t mean it’s good for you. Isolation can create a spiral of despair. Depression and grief cause people to cut themselves off from friends and family, which in turn causes more depression and grief, and so on.
Talk therapy and medications are the standard treatments for these states of mind. Recent research, however, points to another way to help people escape that spiral. It’s been called the pet effect. Simply put, being around animals helps people feel less isolated, depressed, and grief-stricken.
The Pet Effect: It’s Real
Steven Feldman, the Executive Director of the Human Animal Bond Research Institute and a contributor to the website of the Anxiety & Depression Association of America, has written that
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.
In layman’s terms, people under stress feel better when there’s an animal around.
People who struggle with depression and loss bear out these findings in numerous stories of comfort and redemption in the face of traumatic events. The parents, families, and significant others of fallen servicemen and women have sought solace in the company of animals. TAPS, the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, has collected a number of poignant tales about the ways dogs helped them cope with their loss. One survivor wrote about finding comfort in the company of her fallen son’s dog:
Griz is a comfort to have, especially since he is Caleb’s dog. He has comforted me just by being here. He doesn’t try to give me advice or tell me it’s going to get better or any other cliché. He’s just here and available. When I cry, he is right there.
Service members who have been wounded or suffer from PTSD have also found that having an animal companion helps them manage their symptoms and gives them a different outlook on life. One charitable group, K9s For Warriors, has been training and matching rescue dogs with psychologically wounded soldiers since 2011.
Some aspects of the pet effect are a mixture of the psychological and the physiological. The Human/Animal Pain Interaction Research Team at the University of Calgary is especially concerned with the question of how people with chronic pain benefit from being pet parents. Led by Eloise Carr, PhD and Jean E. Wallace, PhD, the team looks at the way physical pain, psychological anguish, and dog ownership interact with each other. Living with chronic pain often leads to depression, which in turn makes the experience of the physical pain more psychologically intolerable. But as Dr. Wallace says,
Even if we can’t reduce the pain, if we can reduce depression and improve mental health, there are benefits in terms of looking at how you get up in the morning and want to do things. Some people we interviewed were suicidal; they were thinking about taking their own lives but what stopped them was having a dog and having to care for that creature. Having a dog is so central to giving them a meaning and purpose.
People who live in assisted care facilities also benefit from the pet effect. Dogs and other animals have become welcomed, regular visitors–and even residents–in nursing homes. This isn’t surprising. Anyone who’s ever taken a Golden Retriever into a nursing home or hospice knows what joy they bring to the residents there.
According to NurseBuff.com, there are three general types of pet therapy in elder care settings:
Visitation therapy, where animals (usually cats and dogs) visit nursing homes periodically
Animal-assisted therapy, where highly sensitive animals are paired with patients who require intensive rehabilitation; and
Ownership therapy, where residents take full charge of caring for a pet.
One nursing home study found that “dog-assisted therapy addressed some of the unmet needs of participants by providing meaningful activity, stimulation, pleasurable social interaction, and comfort through physical contact.” As Jay P. Granat, PhD, a University of Michigan-trained psychotherapist, puts it:
Dogs – and other pets – live very much in the here and now. They don’t worry about tomorrow. And tomorrow can be very scary for an older person. By having an animal with that sense of now, it tends to rub off on people.
How Does the Pet Effect Work?
While there’s little doubt anymore that interacting with animals has a positive effect on people’s state of mind, there’s still much to learn about how and why that happens. Therese Borchard, the founder of Project Hope & Beyond and an Associate Editor of PsychCentral.com, has six theories about how the pet effect works:
1. Pets offer a soothing presence
2. Pets offer unconditional love and acceptance
3. Pets alter our behavior
4. Pets distract
5. Pets promote touch
6. Pets make us responsible
There’s also a wealth of scientific research that explains the pet effect in physiological terms. Pet Partners, a Bellevue, Washington organization dedicated to promoting the use of animals as part of the healing process, has documented an impressive number of ways having a pet results in positive health outcomes. Among many other benefits, pet ownership lowers blood pressure, results in higher one-year survival rates following heart attacks, may be responsible for a reduction in the risk of cardiovascular disease, and is associated with a reduced risk for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and diffuse large cell lymphoma.
What About People Who Can’t Have Pets?
Emotional support animals have become more accepted in the last ten years. It’s not uncommon for landlords who have no-pets policies to make exceptions for bona find emotional support animals. But we still have a way to go before pets are welcome everywhere. Then too, some people love animals and benefit from interaction with them, but are also allergic to them or have household members who are.
The good news for people who would benefit from animal contact but who can’t have a pet is that even occasional contact with animals has positive health effects. Two researchers from Virginia Commonwealth University, Sandra Barker and Aaron K. Wolen addressed the question of what we know about the effects of occasional animal interaction on human health. The found that most studies report that people’s blood pressure declines when they interact with dogs. Interestingly, the effect works even with people who have short-term contact with animals:
Japanese researchers [studied] seniors walking in a park either alone or with a research dog. Their results demonstrated that the dog’s presence in the park, as well as at home, increased parasympathetic neural activity, which is generally associated with stress reduction.
There are several ways to get the psychological benefits animals provide without actually having a pet. Volunteering at a local animal shelter or becoming a professional pet sitter or dog walker gives people some of the pet effect’s benefits without creating conflicts with landlords and neighbors and without constantly subjecting people to allergens.
Best Friends Animal Society is one of the nation’s premier animal rescue organizations. It offers numerous opportunities for people who want to spend time with animals to do so in a way that furthers their “save them all” philosophy.
The ASPCA also has numerous opportunities for people who want to volunteer to work with animals.
Animals on the Healer Team
Mood disorders, chronic pain, and grief are complicated and serious conditions. No one would seriously suggest that people should replace psychiatric, psychological, and medical treatment with puppies—or plants. Rather, treating these conditions is now recognized as a team effort. Doctors and counselors play a role, just as family members and friends do. But animals can be important team members as well.
Evolutionary biologists teach us that dogs evolved alongside humans. Over the course of hundreds of thousands of years, they became very good at reading human feelings. Their survival often depended on it. Today, that psychological understanding is helping people cope during dark episodes of their lives. Animals have earned their place alongside other healers. We shouldn’t hesitate to turn to them for help.
Many people benefit both mentally and emotionally by owning an emotional support dog and we hope this guide helps them get started on the right path.
Author: Michael Shannon O’Keefe