It’s no coincidence that when the pandemic hit and many people were feeling lonely and afraid, animal shelters noticed increased requests to adopt pets. Humans have turned to their pets for companionship and emotional support for a very long time, and during an international health crisis that left many people isolated and worried about the future, companion animals had their work cut out for them.
Loneliness is a common factor in mental illness and addiction. Having another creature to connect with can help alleviate lonely feelings. This may be one reason why 70 percent of households have at least one pet. Animals can also lead humans to connect to each other, through visits to dog parks, veterinary appointments, and shared love of furry friends. Bonding over the sharing of pet photos and silly animal videos is common among animal lovers.
The Human Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI) is a non-profit that has funded research into the connection between people and their pets. HABRI shared the following benefits of having pets:
- It can help regulate a number of hormones related to mental health. One of these, oxytocin, can help to slow heart rate and breathing, lower blood pressure, and create a sense of calm.
- Interacting regularly with animals can increase our ability to bounce back from difficult situations.
- One study of people with high stress jobs found that pet ownership acted as a buffer for their stress. Another study found that children in pet-owning households were less stressed.
- The routines humans establish with their pets can provide a sense of control and certainty and that increases mental wellness.
According to The Guardian, one inpatient psychiatric institution in Great Britain that specializes in very difficult cases of chronic mental illness saw improved empathy, problem solving, responsibility, and responses to anger from patients after they interacted with animals.
Animals with Training
While pets have been found to be beneficial to people just by being part of their lives, some animals receive further training and are able to provide additional benefits as a result.
- HABRI cited one study in which university students who were at risk for academic failure showed less anxiety, better problem-solving skills, and improved confidence after six weeks of therapy sessions with a trained therapy dog.
- Mental Health America (MHA) reports that cancer patients also experienced less anxiety, depression and aggression when therapy animals were part of their treatment.
- When Veterans with PTSD were paired with trained service dogs, they showed improvements in symptoms related to depression, anxiety, social isolation, and substance abuse.
Animals Make Us Better People
Not only can animals help us to feel better, but they can also help us to become better human beings. They can teach us:
- Unconditional love
- How to find joy in simple things
- Responsibility in caring for another living creature
- How to cope with loss
In addition, owning a pet can help improve our self-care. If we have to buy food for a pet, we are more likely to buy food for ourselves. Walking a pet gives us exercise, fresh air, and vitamin D from the sun.
If you would like to learn more about how animals impact mental well-being and other resources to promote mental health, Highland Hospital in West Virginia has a team of mental health professionals that are available to provide support and information.