The Proven Mental Health Benefits of Spending Time with Animals

Mental Health Benefits of Spending Time with Animals

Humans have shared a special bond with animals for thousands of years. Ancient Greeks recognized that horses could lift the spirits of the unwell, while in medieval Belgium, animals were involved in rehabilitation practices, showing the positive effects of companionship. Even our feline friends domesticated themselves and befriended humans for a mutually beneficial relationship.

Today, scientific research continues to uncover the powerful ways in which interactions with animals can boost our mental and physical well-being. From reducing stress and loneliness to encouraging exercise and providing unconditional love, pets offer a multitude of benefits for our mental health. Let's explore the science behind this unique human-animal connection.

They Help Us Feel Loved and Accepted

No matter where you are in life, pets provide infinite amounts of love that combat feelings of stress, loneliness, sadness, and other negative emotions. They offer a judgment-free zone, loving us simply for who we are, regardless of our circumstances. This aligns with our basic human need to both give and receive love.

Interacting with our furry, feathered, or scaled companions allows us to experience touch, talk, and cuddle – actions that release oxytocin, often called the "love hormone". Oxytocin fosters bonding and has been shown to surge in both humans and dogs when they gaze into each other's eyes or interact. This simple exchange can make us feel accepted, secure, and deeply connected.

They Ease Loneliness and Encourage Social Connections

Loneliness can have profound impacts on our mental well-being, but pets are constant companions that help us feel less alone. During the pandemic lockdowns, when many experienced heightened isolation, a 2021 Malaysian study found that pet owners reported improved mental health and well-being compared to those without animal friends[2].

Beyond providing devoted companionship themselves, pets can also act as a "social lubricant", helping facilitate interactions and connections with others. Dog owners, for instance, often strike up conversations while out on walks, building a sense of community.

For some, like those managing mental health conditions, having a pet can motivate them to leave the house when they might otherwise remain isolated. Simply being around an animal can provide a calming presence that makes social situations feel less daunting.

They Encourage Exercise and Outdoor Time

Certain pets, like dogs, require regular exercise and time outdoors, naturally prompting their owners to be more active as well. Dog owners walk an average of 22 more minutes per day than non-owners, benefiting from that additional physical activity. Even a short stroll around the block has been shown to reduce anxiety, depression, and negative moods[1].

Spending time outside experiencing nature can also boost mental well-being. Having a canine companion serves as the perfect incentive to soak up some sunshine and fresh air, which can help alleviate symptoms of conditions like depression and seasonal affective disorder.

They Reduce Stress, Anxiety, and Blood Pressure

In our fast-paced world, chronic stress is a pervasive issue – but interacting with animals has been repeatedly shown to decrease levels of cortisol, a key stress hormone. The soothing presence of a pet can help us stay grounded in the present moment and feel more relaxed.

Studies have also associated pet ownership with lower levels of anxiety, likely due to the calming effects of bonding with a companion animal. A 2015 study even found that growing up with a pet dog was linked to reduced childhood anxiety[3].

Beyond impacting our mental state, spending time with animals has powerful physical effects as well. Decades of research correlate pet ownership, especially dog ownership, with lower blood pressure readings. The act of petting a dog has been shown to help lower heart rates, reducing risks for cardiovascular disease.

They Ease Symptoms of Depression

Depression is one of the most common and debilitating mental health conditions, but evidence suggests animal interactions can help alleviate symptoms. Dogs and horses, in particular, have been found to reduce feelings of depression, which is why they are sometimes incorporated into therapy practices[4].

Service dogs, for instance, are frequently prescribed to veterans with PTSD. Studies show these canine companions can improve psychological well-being, increase resilience, and decrease loneliness and feelings of anxiety and depression among those struggling with trauma[4].

Even for those without a dedicated service animal, the responsibility of caring for a pet can provide a sense of purpose that uplifts mood and counteracts feelings of apathy or worthlessness that often accompany depression.

They Enhance Well-Being for Children

From building emotional skills to reducing anxiety, interacting with animals offers a range of benefits for children's mental health and development. Kids who read aloud to dogs have exhibited improved social skills, like sharing, cooperating, and volunteering, as well as fewer behavioral issues[5].

Animals have also proven helpful for managing certain conditions in young people. One study found that children with autism spectrum disorder were calmer and had improved social interactions during classroom sessions spent with guinea pigs. For kids with ADHD, reading to therapy dogs was linked to increased focus and attention[5].

The unconditional acceptance offered by animals can create a safe, comforting space for children to openly express themselves and practice socialization. This supportive environment may enhance confidence and resilience as kids navigate the challenges of growing up.

They Provide Purpose and Responsibility

Caring for a pet instills a sense of purpose, routine, and responsibility that can be highly therapeutic, especially for those struggling with mental health issues. Having to feed, exercise, and tend to another living being helps get us out of our own heads and focused on someone else's needs.

For example, one study found that teens with Type 1 diabetes who cared for a pet fish were more disciplined about monitoring their blood glucose levels – a crucial self-care task. The caretaking routine served as a positive anchor in their daily lives[5].

Similarly, the tasks involved in pet ownership create structure and reasons to stick to a schedule, which can help alleviate symptoms of conditions like depression that often disrupt normal routines. With a pet relying on us, we have an added incentive to take better care of ourselves too.

Service and Therapy Animals Offer Specialized Support

While pets of all kinds can provide mental health benefits through companionship and bonding, service and therapy animals undergo specialized training to assist with specific needs and conditions.

Service dogs, for instance, learn to detect and respond to their owner's individual medical or psychiatric requirements, like alerting them to upcoming seizures or disrupting anxiety attacks. This level of perception and real-time support can dramatically increase independence, confidence, and peace of mind for those dealing with chronic conditions[5].

Therapy animals are also incorporated into professional treatment plans, visiting hospitals, nursing homes, and counseling offices to help reduce patient stress and anxiety. The calming presence and affection offered by these highly trained animals can enhance the therapeutic process and facilitate healing.

Choosing the Right Pet for Your Needs

With so many different species offering diverse advantages, how can you determine which type of pet might be the best match for your mental health goals?

Research shows dogs tend to provide the highest levels of overall well-being and life satisfaction compared to other pets, likely due to their innate desire to please, protective nature, and the increased physical activity demanded by their exercise needs[6]. However, the added responsibility of a canine companion may not be ideal for everyone's lifestyle or abilities.

For those seeking lower-maintenance options, cats, small furry animals like guinea pigs, fish, and other pets can still reap powerful mental health rewards through their calming presence, routine care, and expressions of affection.

Ultimately, the most crucial factor is feeling a genuine bond and connection with your pet. Whichever animal a person feels connected to is the best animal for them.

Creating a Safe, Healthy Human-Animal Bond

While the research highlights abundant mental health benefits of pet ownership and animal-assisted therapy, it's important to establish safe, responsible practices when integrating animals into your life.

Children, pregnant women, and those with compromised immune systems should take extra precautions, like supervising all interactions, preventing face-licking or hand-to-mouth contact after petting, and keeping pets well-groomed with updated vaccinations. Proper handwashing is also key to reduce the risk of zoonotic diseases or allergic reactions.

Additionally, both humans and animals can experience stress or fatigue from interactions, so it's wise to learn your pet's cues for discomfort and give them breaks as needed. Experts also emphasize animal bite prevention, especially for young children who may misread an animal's boundaries.

By following reasonable safety guidelines, we can ensure the human-animal bond remains a source of mutual care, comfort, and delight.

References:

[1] Tan, Joel Shi Quan et al. “Association between pet ownership and physical activity and mental health during the COVID-19 "circuit breaker" in Singapore.” One health (Amsterdam, Netherlands) vol. 13 100343. 3 Nov. 2021, doi:10.1016/j.onehlt.2021.100343 

[2] Dasha Grajfoner, et al. “The Effect of Pets on Human Mental Health and Wellbeing during COVID-19 Lockdown in Malaysia.” Animals, vol. 11, no. 9, Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute, Sept. 2021, pp. 2689–89, https://doi.org/10.3390/ani11092689. 

[3] Gadomski, Anne M., et al. “Pet Dogs and Children’s Health: Opportunities for Chronic Disease Prevention?” Preventing Chronic Disease, vol. 12, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Nov. 2015, https://doi.org/10.5888/pcd12.150204. 

[4] O'Haire, Marguerite E et al. “Animal-Assisted Intervention for trauma: a systematic literature review.” Frontiers in psychology vol. 6 1121. 7 Aug. 2015, doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01121 

[5] The. “The Power of Pets.” NIH News in Health, Feb. 2018, newsinhealth.nih.gov/2018/02/power-pets. 

[6] “Pets and Happiness: Examining the Association between Pet Ownership and Wellbeing.” Anthrozoös, 2016, https://doi.org/10.1080//08927936.2016.1152721.

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