Author: Sandi Lerman; Families First Community Educator
As I write this article, my fluffy rescue dog Thor is curled up happily at my feet, blissfully ignorant of the global pandemic and all the sudden change and chaos it has brought to our lives. Thor is living his best life right now because the only thing different for him is that I’m spending a whole lot more time at home!
The benefit is mutual, though, as his friendly, happy spirit serves as a constant source of entertainment and companionship for our family during a time that has been full of lots of extra stress and uncertainty. In fact, research about the benefit of pets has shown that their presence in our lives can be a significant protective factor, both for our physical health and our emotional well-being.
THE PHYSICAL AND MENTAL HEALTH BENEFITS OF PETS
Having a pet is a big responsibility, but the health benefits make all the extra effort worthwhile. People with pets, especially dogs, are more likely to get exercise and go outside for fresh air and sunshine. Playing, stroking, and cuddling a furry family pet or watching the movements of tropical fish releases good hormones that make us feel happier and can reduce the production of the stress hormone, cortisol. Having a pet in our lives reduces stress and can reduces the risk of heart attacks and other stress-related medical diseases.
EMOTIONAL SUPPORT ANIMALS
Pets often provide emotional support during challenging times, and the loving bonds that we have with them can help us to overcome feelings of loneliness, particularly during lockdowns when social distancing makes us more isolated. Just having another living, breathing creature at home to love and take care of can be an emotionally supportive activity.
An emotional support animal is a type of animal that provides comfort to help relieve a symptom or effect of a person’s disability and is generally not restricted by species2.
While dogs and cats are the most popular pets, other animals such as fish, birds, reptiles, and even insect pets have been shown to have positive effect on mental health and well-being. In one Korean study, an elderly person had a significant reduction in depression when caring for their pet crickets!
A service animal is any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability. Other species of animals, whether wild or domestic, trained or untrained, are not service animals for the purposes of this definition1.
For individuals with disabilities that cause fatigue, pain, trouble walking, or limited mobility, service dogs can help! Like the mobility tasks for wheelchair users, service dogs can also help people regain balance and prevent falling. The dog can carry items if the individual is too weak to move or hold them.
Because service dogs are allowed by law in public places for the benefit of their owners, this means they can perform these assistive tasks in the grocery store, on the sidewalk and other public areas. If you are thinking of getting a service pet, think about whether you can provide the care it will need, and obtain documentation from your physician.
Beyond being just a pet, animals can be helpful in more formal ways to support people with mental health challenges such as anxiety, depression, and PTSD. Animals have been used in hospitals, therapy sessions, and even in psychological treatment practices such as the use of horses in equine therapy to help them overcome mental health barriers to their everyday lives. A therapy animal is a type of animal-assisted intervention in which there is a “goal directed intervention in which an animal meeting specific criteria is an integral part of the treatment process3.
It’s important to know your rights and responsibilities for using trained service animals in public spaces. For more information, you can check out this guide at the International Service Dog Registry.
FURRY AND FEATHERED FAMILY MEMBERS
According to Allen McConnel, a psychologist from Miami University, the more that people “anthropomorphize” their pets, the stronger their positive psychological impact. In other words, when we consider our pets members of the family and talk to them as we would a family member, this seems to have a positive and calming effect on our mental health. Since our furry family members often have a much shorter life span than our human family members, this makes it painful when it’s time to say goodbye. Grieving the loss of a pet can be just as painful as losing a cherished love one, so it’s important not to minimize the grief and seek support and solace just as you would if you had lost a family member.
SMALL BUT MIGHTY HEROES
Our pets are more than just another mouth to feed, they give our lives purpose, meaning, and companionship. They help us in so many ways just by being there to greet us and make us smile at the end of a hard day…Let’s take good care of them and give them all the credit they deserve for being small but powerful allies in supporting our mental health and well-being!