Updated: Aug 4
There’s no doubt about it – holding a sleeping puppy or purring kitten does something wonderful to us. We soften a bit and the weight of the world melts away for a few moments. Many of us have a unique connection with animals that we don’t share with people. As inconvenient as they can be at times, most pet owners wouldn’t give up their furry (or scaly) friend for anything. Research is starting to show one reason why that may be – pets do wonders for our mental wellbeing.
The effect animals have on our mental health is a topic that has been studied many times over, all with an overarching consensus – animals, particularly pets, can provide a positive effect on our mental health, unique to other forms of treatment.
Pets Can Help with Stress
One study told a group of stressed adults to pet either a rabbit or a turtle. Another group was told to pet a toy rabbit or turtle. The fake animals had no effect on the adults’ stress or anxiety level, but the live animals did reduce stress levels. Furthermore, even the participants who didn’t consider themselves animal lovers still experienced a reduction in stress.
Doctor of psychology from the University of Liverpool, Helen Louise Brooks, led a large review of similar studies. She and her team looked at the effect animals had on individuals who had been diagnosed with a serious mental health condition.
Overall, pets helped the individuals manage their emotions and lessen their symptoms – or at least helped them cope with their symptoms. The pets were seen as providing unconditional love and helped curb feelings of loneliness.
How Do Pets Improve Our Mental Health?
Dr. Brooks said the pets provided a feeling of acceptance without judgment and a form of support that many of the participants were lacking from family and friends. The pets also gave them a sense of purpose and identity.
Many of the pet owners (especially dog owners) in these studies reported that their pets helped them stay connected to the outside world and facilitated social ties. A similar study found that having a guinea pig in a classroom of children with autism, made socialization easier for the children. They showed fewer signs of stress and appeared generally happier.
Other research found that children in the UK and Australia who had pet dogs reported lower levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, and were less likely to have anxiety. They were also more likely to have healthier BMIs, due to the physical activity that having a dog can require.
Pets Can Improve Sleep
A somewhat surprising benefit of pet ownership is the possibility of better sleep. A study conducted at the Mayo Clinic’s Center for Sleep Medicine found that 41% of individuals surveyed reported sleeping better with their pet dog or cat in the room or bed with them. Many said their pet provided a sense of security and comfort, helping them get more restful sleep.
These findings may be relevant when looking at the role sleep plays with conditions such as anxiety and depression, which are both oftentimes linked to poor sleep. A four-legged sleeping companion could help reduce anxiety or depression symptoms and allow for sufferers to get better sleep.
With the research stacking up, some experts are recommending animals be included in patient care plans. Study co-author, Dr. Kelly Rushton says, “We feel that pet ownership has a valuable contribution to mental health, so should be incorporated into individual care plans of patients.”
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Sandoiu, Ana. (2018, February 19). “It’s Official: Pets Benefit Our Mental Health.” Retrieved from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/320950.php
Whiteman, Honor. (2015, December 16). “Sharing a Bed with Your Pet Could Help Your Sleep.” Retrieved from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/304177.php
Whiteman, Honor. (2017, June 2). “Six Ways Your Pet Can Boost Health and Well-Being.” Retrieved from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/317738.php?iacp