Why pets are good for our mental health
By Gemma Raw
Pets are not only great companions. They can also support our wellbeing, helping us cope with stress, fight depression and avoid anxiety. If you're a dog owner, you'll know about the buzz you get from a waggy-tailed welcome home. But did you know that you can get real mental health benefits from stroking your canine companion or having a cuddle with your cat? Studies suggest that pet owners are less likely to suffer from depression and high blood pressure. And simply playing with your pooch can boost your serotonin and dopamine levels, helping you stay calm.
The benefits of interaction with animals were recognised many years ago by the ancient Greeks, with documented examples of horse riding being used to lift the spirits of terminally ill people and dogs roaming free in temples to provide comfort to convalescing worshippers.
Several modern-day studies have highlighted the positive effects of what is now known as Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT). In addition, many health professionals and organisations have endorsed the practice, including the Royal College of Nursing (RCN). In 2016 they said that most nurses supported the use of animal therapy to benefit patients across a range of healthcare challenges, including mental health and learning disabilities. In 2019 they published a protocol to support nurses and allied health professionals considering working with dogs in healthcare settings.
Exercise, socialising and mindfulness
It's not just stroking or playing with your pet that can benefit your mental health. For example, dog walking is a great way of increasing the amount of daily physical activity you do, which can have a huge effect on your mental wellbeing. It's also an opportunity to meet people and make new friends.
Animals live in the moment, which means they don't dwell on the past or worry about the future. Observing them can help us learn to focus on the present, a practice known as mindfulness, which has been proven to enhance mental wellbeing.
What if you can't have a pet?
Not everyone can own a pet. Maybe you don't have the time to look after it properly or you live somewhere that pets are not allowed. If this is the case, why not consider pet sitting or dog walking for a friend or relative? You could also volunteer at a local animal centre or for The Cinnamon Trust, which supports the elderly and terminally ill so that they don't have to give up their beloved pets.
In 2018 a study of 17 research papers by academics at the University of Manchester, Southampton and Liverpool concluded that pets can help people manage their long-term health conditions.
"We feel that pet ownership has a valuable contribution to mental health, so should be incorporated into individual care plans of patients, said Dr Kelly Rushton, one of the authors of the study. "This sort of intervention also offers an opportunity to involve patients in their own mental health service provision through open discussion of what works best for them."