Pets didn’t earn the title of man’s best friend for nothing. They’re loyal, fun to be around, love unconditionally and teach us the importance of being selfless. But more than that, it’s been proven that owning a pet can significantly impact our mental wellbeing. Gavin Miller, Managing Director at Marltons, discusses the undeniable correlation between pets and a healthier emotional state.
Owing pets naturally comes with a varied range of therapeutic benefits, many of which are becoming more evident as we reel from the ongoing effects of the pandemic. According to a 2021 survey of British pet owners, around 90% of dog owners said that owning a pet made them feel mentally healthier. Although the figures were lower for cat and rabbit owners, at around 85% and 81%, respectively, it’s evident that the bonds between humans and their animals are not just powerful, but have the potential to be life-changing.
Pets have evolved to become acutely attuned to the behaviours and emotions of their owners. Just like a human companion, dogs are able to understand a range of words we often use and can interpret our tone of voice, body language and gestures to try gauge what we are thinking and feeling. And not just because they know they’re going to get a treat, tummy tickle or a walk in reward, although that is a major bonus for them.
The idea that emotional support can come in the form of four legs, and not just two, is not a new one. Scientists have been digging up evidence on the topic for more than 30 years. One study measured what happens to a healthy body when a person touched a friendly dog. Physical evidence, such as lowered blood pressure, slower heart rate and relaxed muscle tension – all signs of reduced stress – supported the theory of the mental health benefits of pets.
Further studies have shown that when compared to those without pets:
- Pet owners are less likely to suffer from depression
- People with pets have lower blood pressure in stressful situations
- Pet owners have lower triglyceride and cholesterol levels (indicators of heart disease)
- Heart attack patients with pets survive longer
- Playing with a dog, cat, or other pet can elevate levels of serotonin and dopamine, which act to calm and relax you.
Pet ownership also fosters a sense of mindfulness. For many, facing the endlessly long lockdown periods with little certainty of what to expect of each new day, a furry companion forced them to be more mindful and live in the present. Mindfulness is an important psychological process, and having a reason to ‘paws’ for thought gives people a much-needed sense of purpose.
One of the reasons for these therapeutic effects is that pets fulfill the basic human need for love, touch and affection.
Emotional support dogs are being recognised as a vital part of mental health treatment. For the elderly, pets prove to be a lifeline to encourage social interaction and are regularly used in alternative therapies in the treatment of depression, and even more complex therapies related to Alzheimer’s Disease and dementia. Pets are used to help children with cancer deal with pain and anxiety. Even hardened criminals show long-term changes in their behaviour after interacting with pets, as many of them experience mutual affection for the first time.
The more people learn about the health benefits of the human-animal bond, the more likely we are to see an increase in pet-friendly public places. Pets will become a common sight in workplaces, classrooms, shopping centres, retirement homes, hospitals, and beyond. And it’s not only dogs and cats that soothe our mental wellbeing. Rabbits, hamsters, mice, and even rats, are ideal if you have limited space but still want a furry friend to cuddle. Birds can encourage social interaction and help keep your mind sharp if you’re older. Snakes, lizards, and other reptiles can make for exotic companions that be educational for younger children. Even watching fish in a tank can help reduce muscle tension and lower your heart rate.
But it is important to remember that despite all the benefits, owning a pet is not a cure all for mental health issues. There is no denying that paws – or claws, fins and feathers – have a place in mental wellbeing, but only for those who have a love for domestic animals and have the time and money to invest in a companion for what may potentially be many years or decades to come.
Life is tough. A calming companion to remind us about the value of unconditional love and companionship could well be the ‘pet prescription’ that so many of us need.