Keep calm and cuddle your pets
Is the thought of winter approaching getting you down? Find out how interacting with your pets can boost your mood
For some people, when the clocks go back each October, signaling shorter days and the approach of winter, it can be a challenging time.
For anyone struggling with their mental health, or those who suffer from SAD – seasonal affective disorder, sometimes known as ‘winter depression’ because the symptoms are usually more apparent and more severe during the winter – this time of year can be particularly difficult.
But, if you have pets, help is close at hand. Experts agree that animal companions can really make an astonishing difference to the lives of their human.
Monty Don relies on his dogs
Along with his passion for plants, Gardeners’ World presenter Monty Don cites his dogs (Nell, Patti and Ned) as the key to getting him through winter.
Speaking to Country Living magazine, Monty revealed that he is affected by light, making October, when the clocks go back, a tricky month: “From the beginning to the end, there is quite a shocking difference. You’re gardening against the clock because you know there will be bad weather… But there is also this vaguer sense of the door closing, that everything is coming to an end.”
Along with gardening for an hour or two in the afternoon, Monty also relies on his dogs: “The thing about dogs is that they need looking after: they have to be fed, they have to be taken for a walk. It stops you thinking so much about yourself.”
From cats to chinchillas, rabbits to guinea pigs – just stroking your pet lowers the levels of the stress hormone cortisol, leading to a calmer approach to life. Prolonged raised cortisol levels have been linked to mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression.
“Our pets can be an absolute lifeline for us, they not only provide companionship and add structure to our day. They are comforting, entertaining and loving, which helps to reduce our anxiety as we focus on them.”
Writing in The Guardian, GP Ann Robinson says: “The therapeutic value of our relationship with our pets, particularly dogs, is increasingly recognised by researchers. We now understand that healthy social bonds can play a key role in mental health; without them, we become lonely, depressed and physically unwell. And pets, it seems, can fulfil that role.”
And there’s also the ‘magic’ ingredient – oxytocin – the ‘love’ or ‘hug’ hormone that’s released when we stroke, cuddle or even look at our beloved pets. Dr Robinson adds: “Oxytocin works in tandem with another brain hormone, vasopressin, to help to modulate our response to stress.”
Partnerships with pets
Ann Hemingway, Professor of Public Health and Wellbeing, Bournemouth University, states: “It’s a longstanding and widely accepted fact that people of all ages can benefit from partnerships with animals as pets. From the joy of the human-animal bond, to companionship and improved mental health, there is no doubt that cats, dogs and other pets enhance our lives immeasurably.”
“Pet ownership can also help you build better connections within your community. A 2015 study found that pet owners were more likely than non-pet owners to get to know local people. A new dog could bring you a wider circle of friends and more happiness.”
A source of comfort and self-confidence
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.”
The charity adds that pets can also be confidence boosters, affirming: “Pets can be great listeners, offer unconditional love and won’t criticise you. This can help your self-confidence, especially if you feel isolated or misunderstood.”
“Pets get us out exploring the world with them and can even act as icebreakers that encourage us to meet new friends when we’re out and about; almost a quarter of pet owners recently surveyed by Blue Cross said they had met somebody through their four-legged friend.”
How can a pet help my mental health?
According to the Mental Health Foundation, caring for a pet boosts mental health in many different ways, including:
- INCREASING YOUR PHYSICAL ACTIVITY Dog owners are likely to take their pets for a walk or run every day. This can be a fun way to fit exercise into your routine.
- PROVIDING COMPANIONSHIP Pets can give you a sense of security and someone to share the day with. Caring for them can help you feel wanted and needed. This can be especially valuable for older people or those who live alone.
- HELPING YOU MEET NEW PEOPLE Dog owners often stop and chat with each other on walks. But other pets can be a way to meet people too: in pet shops, training classes or online groups, for example.
- ADDING STRUCTURE TO YOUR DAY Feeding, exercising and caring for a pet can help you keep to a daily routine, which can help you feel more grounded and focused. It can give your day purpose and a sense of achievement.
The habits of happy people
Investigating the habits of happy people, Lowri Dowthwaite-Walsh, Senior Lecturer in Psychological Interventions, University of Central Lancashire, adds: “Research shows that dogs motivate their human companions to be more active and in turn, both dog and human have a shared pleasurable experience that boosts their happiness. I also enjoy sitting with my cats while drinking tea and reading a book. Studies have found that family pets provide many benefits towards health and happiness, as they not only provide companionship but also reduce incidents of depression and anxiety while helping to boost our happiness and self-esteem levels.”
“Pets also provide company to ease loneliness and encourage social interactions between people – if you walk with a dog in a park, you’ll know how often other dog owners stop and talk to you. Dogs, then, are often mediators of social contact, which is a vital function in a society where people increasingly live alone.”
So, this winter, make sure you and your pets spend lots of quality time together – doctor’s orders! It will bring enormous wellbeing benefits for both you and your animal friends.
Using the expertise and experience built over the centuries, today Yorkshire-based family company Burgess Pet Care produces high-quality, award-winning pet foods – such as food for dogs with sensitivities, food specially created to support neutered cats – and has launched many innovations. These include the UK’s first single component nugget for rabbits to prevent selective feeding, and the world’s first food specifically formulated for indoor rabbits.
CARE MORE Find lots of useful advice on caring for all your pets from Burgess, the pet experts. Training, nutrition, grooming and general care. It's all here >>
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