Why pets are so good for our mental wellbeing
“When the world is difficult to process, having a friend who offers unconditional, judgement-free love and devotion can calm even the busiest of minds. Owning dogs has brought huge benefits to my life.”
So stated naturalist, autism sufferer and proud Poodle owner Chris Packham in a recent Twitter post. He tweeted to show his support of the work of Dogs for Good, an innovative charity that trains assistance dogs and explores the different ways dogs can help people overcome specific physical and mental challenges.
The charity Mental Health Foundation, confirms that the companionship of pets is a great way to reduce anxiety and stress, stating: “A pet can be a great source of comfort, companionship and motivation for their owners. In many ways, pets can help us to live mentally healthier lives.”
Pets can help people with mental health issues in all sorts of ways. For those with depression, pets can be a great motivator. Dogs especially are great at encouraging owners to get out and about for some beneficial exercise and fresh air. Owning a dog can also help people stay socially connected and less withdrawn by being out and about and interacting with other dog walkers. Caring for a pet also gives a purpose to the day, helping people with low self-esteem feel needed.
THE BENEFITS OF PETS BY NUMBERS
- 87% of people who owned a cat felt it had a positive impact on their wellbeing and 76% said they could cope with everyday life much better thanks to the company of their feline friends, according to a survey by the Mental Health Foundation and Cats Protection.
- Owning a dog as a child lowers the risk of anxiety from 21% to 12%, according to a study by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
- 60% of people surveyed said their pets played a central role in helping them manage their mental health, according to research conducted by Dr Helen Brooks from the University of Manchester.
For those suffering with anxiety, pets can have a calming effect. Just stroking, playing with or sitting next to a pet can give owners a sense of relaxation and quietens their minds. For children with autism or ADHD, animals provide a valuable focus.
Mental Health Foundation states: “Sensory issues are common among children with autism. Sensory integration activities are designed to help them get used to the way something feels against their skin or how it smells or sounds. Dogs and horses have both been used for this purpose. Children with autism often find it calming to work with animals. Children with ADHD are used to their parents trying to calm them down or reprimanding them. A pet is a great listener and offers unconditional love and will not criticise a child for having too much energy. This can aid a child's self-confidence.”
Animals can also enrich the lives of older people living with dementia. Pets as Therapy (PAT) is a charity that provides community-based animal assisted therapy across the UK. Volunteer PAT members take their pet dog along to residential homes, hospitals, hospices and day care centres to bring comfort and companionship to individuals who appreciate being able to touch and stroke a friendly animal.
Four-legged mood booster
Dementia Friendly Communities at Kent County Council, praises the visits of PAT dog Esther at its care homes: “For many residents, Esther’s visits are something to look forward to in the week and really do brighten up their day. A member of staff explained that one resident can be non-communicative, but when Esther visits she is much happier, chats with staff and other residents and has her mood boosted for several days.”
There are even some NHS hospitals that are using pets to provide therapy to patients suffering from a variety of mental health issues including depression, anxiety and more complex disorders. Throughout the course of the day, patients are given the chance to play, hold, feed and pet the animals, allowing them to build relationships, increase their confidence and feel a sense of achievement.
Sharon Hall of Noah’s Art, a company which provides a service to hospitals using a variety of rescued animals including rabbits, cats, rats, guinea pigs and dogs, says: “People with mental health problems find communication difficult and can struggle with expectations to behave a certain way. When people are low they are still able to cope with an animal, it provides them with a connection and can let them know they are still part of the world.”