Do Animals Help with Mental Health?

If you live in the United States, over the past few years you have probably noticed more service dogs in public.

This is due to the recent surge in popularity of emotional support animals. For most animal lovers and pet owners, the notion that animals can help improve mental health is not surprising at all. However, there has also been some skepticism from the general public about whether or not there is any truth to the idea.

Most pet owners would agree that at some point or another, they have had a hard day, come home to snuggles from their dog or cat, and felt much better. There is no doubt that the human companionship that we get from familial relationships, romantic relationships, and friendships is good for our mental health. The companionship we get from a beloved pet is really no different. But is there any scientific proof behind this?

How Can Animals Help with Mental Health?

  • Pets help to make their owners feel less lonely, providing companionship even when no other people are around.
  • Owning a pet gives a person someone to take care of other than themselves: they have to get up out of bed to walk and feed the pet every day regardless of how they’re feeling. Sometimes simply just getting up and getting moving can alleviate depression.
  • An animal’s presence alone can help to lessen anxiety. Petting them, hearing them purr or snore, etc. can all be calming to the owner.
  • Pets can be great motivators for people. Dogs especially encourage their owners to get more exercise, which has been proven to help both depression and anxiety.
  • Pets can lead to socializing with other pet owners (at parks, events, the vet, on walks, etc.).
  • Pets can be a stress buffer, softening the blow of difficult life events such as divorce, death in the family, health issues, etc.
  • Animals have also been proven to help people with Autism, ADHD, and a multitude of other illnesses.

Research on Animals and Mental Health

In various studies that have been conducted over the past thirty years or so, mental health professionals have measured what happens to the human body when in the presence of animals. The first research on pets and mental health ever published was conducted by Psychologist Alan Beck of Purdue University and Psychiatrist Aaron Katcher of The University of Pennsylvania. They measured, specifically, what happens to the body when the person pets a friendly dog. What they found is as follows. In the majority of participants:

  • Blood pressure went down
  • Breathing became regular
  • Heart rate slowed
  • Muscle tension relaxed

Because all of the above are known signs of reduced stress, these researchers discovered actual physical evidence of the positive affects animals have on mental health. Most studies conducted since have had very similar findings. Of course, when it comes to mental health, what works well for one person may not work for another. It is also important to remember that owning a pet is a huge responsibility and not one that is right for everybody to take on. Before you decide to bring a pet into your home, ask yourself if you live the type of lifestyle that would work well with pet ownership. A pet may help improve your mental health, but they rely on you to take care of them as well. Do not make the decision to get a pet unless you know you will be able to give them a good life.

All types of pets require a huge time commitment as well as a financial one. Things such as a pet’s vet bills and exercise requirements may cause extra stress on you, so you want to make sure that the extra stresses will be worth it and will not outweigh the positive affects on your mental health. Allergies to animals are common too, so be weary of that. If you work long hours each day or go out of town a lot, a dog may not be a good fit for you. Cats however are slightly less reliant on their owners and can be left alone for longer than dogs can. These are all things to consider. If owning a pet isn’t right for you, perhaps you may think about volunteering at a local animal shelter. Being around animals can help alleviate your stress even if it is just for a couple hours a week. For this reason, there are many programs that bring dogs to visit patients in hospitals, metal health facilities, and senior living homes.

At the end of the day, there is certainly some concrete proof that animals can help to greatly improve a person’s mental health. It is up to you to decide whether an animal companion is right for you and your specific situation. Remember that if you have found a healthy habit that helps you feel better (exercise, cooking, petting animals), you should continue to do it. Just because something hasn’t been “proven” doesn’t mean it won’t help you! We are all on our own unique journeys.

For Information and Support

Seeking help is never easy, but you are not alone! If you or someone you know is in need of mental health treatment, we strongly encourage you to reach out for help as quickly as possible. It is not uncommon for many mental health difficulties to impact an individual for the long term. The earlier you seek support, the sooner you and your loved ones can return to happy, healthy and fulfilling lives.

Our admissions team is available to answer any general questions regarding mental health issues, treatment, and/or specific questions about the program at Pacific Teen Treatment and how we might be able to help your family. We can be reached by phone 24/7 at 800-531-5769.

References

  1. psychologytoday.com“Companion Animals Help People with Mental Health Problems”. Beckoff, Marc. February 10, 2018.
  2. newportacademy.com“10 Ways Pets Support Mental Health”. June 1, 2018.