• Dr Caity Venniker

How Pets Help Mental Health

World Mental Health Day falls annually on October 10th. It was started in 1992 with the aim of raising awareness and sensitivity towards mental health around the world. This year, we’re taking the opportunity to talk about the wonderful role pets can play in stabilising mood, alleviating anxiety, and providing emotional support.


Whilst meeting the needs of our pets must always be the primary focus, there is a fascinating and heart-warming reciprocity in the way our animals can comfort us and enrich our lives.


Pet Superpowers – Physical Benefits


The relationship that has evolved between humans and domestic animals boasts some remarkable benefits. For example, with their incredible sense of smell (about 10 000 times more sensitive than ours)(5), dogs can be trained to detect diseases such as cancer and diabetes. One study showed that dogs are able to detect blood samples from people who have cancer with 97% accuracy(5). There has been pr


omising research which suggests that sniffer dogs could provide an innovative means of screening for disease, that is quick, inexpensive and non-invasive.


Cats prefer to help their humans from the comfort of the couch (no surprises there!) and they do a good job of it. A cat’s purr is believed to be medically therapeutic. The specific frequency range of the purr can


help lower blood pressure; fight infections; and even improve the healing of broken bones.

Early exposure to pets may protect children from the development of allergies, eczema, hay fever and asthma. This is especially true if they are exposed to two or more pets, and if they are in close contact - as if we needed another reason to cuddle cats!(6)


Just owning a pet is associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease and lower cholesterol(3). The reason for this is not entirely understood but could be due to a combination of factors. Pet owners tend to be more active (particularly dog owners) which is beneficial. Additionally, affectionate interaction with animals has been shown to lower both blood pressure(3) as well as levels of cortisol, the stress hormone.




Pet Superpowers – Mental Benefits


Research has shown that interaction with animals can be of significant psychological benefit to people. Having a pet not only provides companionship, but also adds structure, responsibility, and a sense of purpose to the daily routine. It can facilitate meeting and connecting with new people (just look at our Facebook page – a whole community of cat lovers who are willing to chat, offer advice, and of course admire the KatKin cats that bring us all together).


Animals can distract us from our anxieties and offer friendship without judgement. Sometimes they surprise us with their absurdities; sometimes they make us laugh. We can rely on them to never care about taxes or bother about Brexit. Their needs are simple and meeting them can be both rewarding and grounding.


The Human Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI) has found that the interaction between people and pets helps to alleviate stress, depression, and PTSD(1). It also commonly reduces feelings of loneliness and boosts mood.



Animals Can Help Decrease Stress and Loneliness


Therapy dogs and cats have been used in hospitals to comfort people with terminal illnesses. Cats have the advantage of sleeping for a large part of the day, which makes them ideal companions for bed-ridden patients.


Animal assisted therapy is also useful in nursing homes and long-term care facilities.

Bill Thomas, a revolutionary medical director at a nursing home in New York, introduced two dogs, four cats and a hundred birds into the care facility where he worked in the 1990s. He also increased the number of gardens and introduced interaction with children from the local school.


The results were extraordinary. Thomas wanted to bring a sense of life into the institution; and encouraged the patients to be involved with the animal care. His aim was to combat boredom, loneliness and helplessness(2). The outcome was staggering - the number of prescriptions halved, particularly for medications used for mood disturbances; and mortality fell by 15%(2).


Animals have the innate ability to be fully present and paying attention. Ann Berger, a physician and researcher who works with people with terminal illnesses, believes that this quality is what makes all the difference. She believes that spending time with animals may help patients to reach their own state of mindfulness, which helps them to decrease stress and manage pain(4).


In children, animals have also been shown to improve conditions in the classroom. They encourage tactile defensive individuals to tolerate the feeling of fur and exposure to foreign sounds and smells.


Mental health concerns are as pertinent as ever. The Covid-19 pandemic has taken its toll on all of us. Bereavement, isolation, loss of income and uncertainty have triggered and exacerbated mental health conditions globally. Whilst an animal should never be acquired for purely selfish reasons, it is possible that we need our pets now more than ever. The mutually beneficial relationship between people and pets can never replace medication or therapy for individuals who need them, but it can offer a pillar of human wellness; support physical and mental health; and improve quality of life.


According to the philosopher Martin Buber, “An animal’s eyes have the power to speak a great language.” Perhaps now is the time to listen.


If you have a story about how your pet helped you through a hard time, do let us know over on Instagram! Drop us a DM – we'd love to hear from you.


References:

  1. Feldman, S. (2021). How science supports pets for improving your mental health. Mental Health America. Retrieved October 6, 2021, from: https://mhanational.org/blog/how-science-supports-pets-improving-your-mental-health

  2. Gawande, A. (2014). Being mortal: Medicine and what matters in the end. Metropolitan Books. NY, USA.

  3. Harvard Health Publishing. (2015). Having a dog can help your heart – literally. Harvard Medical School. Retrieved October 5, 2021, from: https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/having-a-dog-can-help-your-heart--literally

  4. NIH. (2018). The power of pets: Health benefits of human-animal interactions. News in Health. Retrieved October 6, 2021, from: https://newsinhealth.nih.gov/2018/02/power-pets

  5. Science News. (2019). Study shows dogs can accurately sniff out cancer in blood. Science Daily. Retrieved October 5, 2021, from: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/04/190408114304.htm

  6. Wong, S. (2018). The more pets you meet as a baby, the lower your risk of allergies. New Scientist. Retrieved October 6, 2021, from: https://www.newscientist.com/article/2188610-the-more-pets-you-meet-as-a-baby-the-lower-your-risk-of-allergies/

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