Pets and Mental Health: Healing with Animals

Stress, anxiety and emotional distress are experienced by millions of people all over the world each year. And while medications and therapy have become the mainstay of treatment for mental health disorders like depression and anxiety, some people find relief with less conventional treatment options. Many people suffering from emotional distress or mental health problems find that spending time with their pets or other animals makes them feel content. This beneficial effect on mental health has been studied, and it turns out that having a pet just might help!

Pets and Mental Health

It is estimated that almost 70% of households in the US have pets. Of those who have pets, 95% consider their pet as a member of their family. This strong bond between pets and their owners has made people wonder how that interaction could impact a person’s health.

The Human-Animal Bond

The human-animal bond has been studied to evaluate the impact that “interactions with animals” has on people’s lives. With such a strong bond between humans and their pets demonstrated in surveys of pet owners, it makes sense that these animals may, in fact, influence the lives of their owners. There has been extensive research in this area to determine the benefits that animals and pets provide. Through this research, it has been discovered that direct interaction with certain animals can actually improve some measures of mental and physical health.

Research

There has been a lot of research evaluating the benefits of human interaction with animals. Some of the research done in this regard has demonstrated the physical health benefits of interacting with a pet. It has been found that children with pets have lower BMIs and adults with pets tend to have lower blood pressure. In addition to these physical health benefits, pets have also demonstrated a huge impact on mental and emotional health. Research has shown that pets reduce anxiety, depression and feelings of isolation. They may also improve a person’s daily routine and, moreover, having a pet could encourage social interactions with others. The research in this area has been extensive. Many studies, that look at specific mental health conditions and how pet therapy may or may not benefit these conditions, can be found online. It should also be noted that some conflicting evidence exists that does not support pet therapy for mental health conditions.

Benefits of Pet Ownership

Pet ownership has been shown to improve the mental and physical health of many people. Pets provide an unconditional love that offers comfort and support for their owners. This can lead to a reduction in feelings of emotional distress and, ultimately, improved mental health. Pets also require their owners to establish some form of routine. This type of routine can be therapeutic for those who suffer from anxiety or feelings of overwhelming stress. In addition, many owners feel a sense of responsibility for their pet’s physical health. This often means that having a pet encourages owners to be more active, improving their physical health as well.

Pet Owners: Mental Health Statistics

A surprisingly high number of people are thought to suffer from mental health conditions in the United States. It is estimated that 1 in 5 adults and 1 in 5 children suffer from a mental health disorder each year. With such a high incidence, there has been extensive research into medical and non-medicine therapies for those who experience the struggles of mental health conditions. When looking at how pets impact mental health, research has found that people who have pets have lower rates of depression, anxiety and feelings of loneliness. When surveyed, 74% of pet owners said that they felt their pet provided them with relief from their mental health problems. In addition, 75% of these pet owners had witnessed an improvement in a friend or family member’s mental health issues when they had pets. These high numbers support the idea that interaction with animals can benefit those who suffer from mental health disorders.

What is an Emotional Support Animal?

Emotional support animals are animals that provide emotional support for people suffering from mental or emotional health problems. Most often, emotional support animals are dogs or cats. However any animal that provides comfort or stability can be considered as an emotional support animal. For example, there are studies showing that guinea pigs, fish and even horses can have a positive impact on mental and emotional health. Animals that are considered dangerous to their owner or others are not able to become emotional support animals. Having an emotional support animal requires a letter from a licensed medical health professional. This letter provides the owner with legal protection and financial assistance in some cases.

Emotional Support Animal vs. Service Animal

While emotional support animals and service animals are both beneficial for the health of their owners, there are differences between the two. Emotional support animals help to improve the emotional and mental health of their owners, but they are generally not specifically trained to do so. Most of the time their mere presence in a person’s life is what benefits the owner. Service animals, on the other hand, receive special training to be able to provide aid and perform skills to assist with their owner’s health. Service dogs can be used for mental health problems, but they are used to help people with certain medical conditions as well. There are also differences in how emotional support animals and service animals are treated by certain establishments. Service animals can enter public places, like restaurants and workplaces, while emotional support animals often cannot. However, both can travel and live with you free of charge.

Pets and Mental Health

Mental Health Benefits of Owning a Pet

Depression

Pets can be beneficial for reducing rates of depression and also for improving some of the symptoms of depression. Spending time with a dog or cat can actually increase levels of serotonin and dopamine in the brain; this is similar to the way in which antidepressant medications work. In addition to the effect that a pet can have on the brain, owning a pet requires the owner to take care of it, which in turn encourages them to also take care of themselves. This includes getting exercise (such as taking the pet for a walk or playing) and also regaining a sense of purpose each day (because your pet relies on you for food and bathroom needs). Pets also have a way of providing unconditional comfort and love, both of which can help those suffering from depression feel less isolated.

Anxiety

Owning a pet can reduce the incidence of anxiety. There are studies showing that children who had a pet dog suffered from anxiety less often than those who did not have a dog. Similarly, a study done in children with autism found that those who were allowed to play with guinea pigs experienced reduced anxiety levels and they showed improved engagement. Petting or playing with an animal can help take the focus off an anxiety-inducing situation and provide comfort for someone who feels anxious. This interaction also boosts the release of oxytocin and endorphins in the body. These are chemicals that induce calmness and relieve pain, respectively.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Post-traumatic stress disorder is an anxiety-related disorder and people who suffer from this condition can benefit from animal interaction. Animals provide the anxiety-relieving characteristics discussed above. In addition, some people who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder benefit from a service animal that is trained to help them through difficult times. These service animals can be trained to comfort their owners through panic attacks and alert them to dangerous situations. They can also be trained to ensure that their owner gets their medications. Through their comforting actions and unwavering love, these animals can give their owners the support they need to face their insecurities each day and get back to living their lives.

Mood Disorders

People suffering from various mood disorders can experience some relief in the presence of animals. They improve symptoms by reducing feelings of loneliness and improving daily mood. Service animals can also be utilized in patients with mood disorders, such as bipolar depression. For these people, service dogs can be trained to recognize mania, reorient their owner to reality and help alert emergency services if necessary.

Pets in Patient Care: Future Perspectives

Pet therapy has a place in mental and emotional health treatment. With the guidance of a licensed mental health provider, you can find an appropriate way to incorporate an animal into your therapy. A provider can help you to determine which type of animal would be most beneficial for you and if you would benefit from an emotional support animal or service animal. As evidence continues to grow in this area, it will be beneficial to learn more about the roles that animals can play in therapy and how they impact mental health.

Animals provide us with unconditional love and a sense of comfort. They are being utilized more and more to help stressed-out college students and lonely nursing home residents improve their mood and reduce their anxiety.

As we continue to learn more about the interaction between humans and animals, the ways in which animals can be utilized to improve mental and emotional health will continue to expand. For now, you should consult your mental health provider to determine how animal therapy may benefit you.

 

Resources

  1. https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/a-to-z/p/pets-and-mental-health
  2. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/320950.php
  3. https://adaa.org/learn-from-us/from-the-experts/blog-posts/consumer/alleviating-anxiety-stress-and-depression-pet
  4. https://www.certapet.com/emotional-support-animal/
  5. https://www.petfoodindustry.com/articles/6386-millennials-led-us-pet-ownership-to-846-million-in-2016
  6. https://www.apaservices.org/practice/update/2015/08-27/animal-assisted-therapy
  7. https://www.nami.org/learn-more/mental-health-by-the-numbers