Pets and Mental Health: The Surprising Positive Connection According to Science


There are several good reasons to spoil your pet.  People who own a one lead happier, healthier lives according to science.  That explains why they are so well-loved.  In a Harris pool from 2015, over 95% of respondents said that they think of their pets as a member of the family.  They are so much so that around half of the pet owners surveyed admitted to buying them birthday gifts and showering them with affection.

In return, your furry (or sometimes scaly, feathery, or fuzzy) friend keeps you healthy and provides mental stability.  Studies show that animal owners have a lower heart rate, blood pressure, and risk for heart disease than those who don’t.  Not only that, but a recent meta-analysis of 17 different academic research papers draws conclusive findings that caring for a pet has numerous benefits to people with mental health conditions.

In this article, we’ll look at the science behind the positive effects of pet ownership.  We’ll dive into the studies, and include information on how they help, which pets have shown positive associations, and how to add pet therapy into a mental health treatment plan.

Meta-Analysis Information

There are over a dozen studies that researched the relationship between mental health and pet ownership.  Dr. Helen Louise Brooks out of the University of Liverpool, along with her colleagues, vetted research studies from nine separate medial databases to gather all of the potentially pertinent information.

They retrieved over 8,000 articles. The researchers then narrowed their meta-analysis down to 17 trials that directly correlated the mental health well-being of humans with a mental illness to their ownership of pets including dogs, cats, birds, hamsters, and fish.

The studies included in her research focused on participants who received a diagnosis of a serious mental health condition, or self-reported mental illness.  They also included individuals who have a mental health condition that links to a developmental disorder or a problem that manifests in their physical health.

In early 2018 the study was published, and you can find the full synopsis in the journal BMC Psychiatry.

Conclusion Highlights

Among the findings was the fact that pets and mental health have overall positive connotations.

In several studies, animal owners had fewer negative feelings and experienced less loneliness, distress, and worry than their pet-free counterparts.

In addition, some participants reported that their pet forced physical activity and connection to the outside world.  Specifically, dog owners who needed to leave their home for walks and bathroom breaks experienced less isolation and other behaviors associated with depression and mental illness.

Finally, many of the individuals studied reported that their pet gave them a deeper meaning, and a reason to exist.  Despite depression or suicidal thoughts, these people found that notions of their pet relying on them and being a kind pet owner kept them from taking extreme actions.

Positive Health Associations for People with Pets

It’s not just mental health that can be positively impacted by having an animal companion.  Studies have linked pet ownership to lower blood pressure, body mass index, obesity levels, and anxiety.  Caretakers also show higher signs of happiness, contentment, and overall satisfaction in life.

How Pets Benefit Health

Many studies focus on specific mental health conditions and how owning a pet may impact the symptoms.  Here are several health conditions where studies have demonstrated positive correlations, and a summary of the benefits.

Depression

One in 15 adults (over 6% of the population) will experience depression this year. And one in five will be affected at some point in their life.  Depression is not only common, but it’s also dangerous.  The illness impacts your emotions, thoughts, and actions. And it can cause you to feel sad, lose interest in activities and life, and a decreased ability to function.

Pet ownership helps to combat this condition in a few ways.  They offer a calming presence and companionship that can decrease feelings of sadness. And caring for an animal can help you to feel needed and valuable.  Also, one common suggestion to people with depression to combat symptoms is to get regular exercise.  Dog owners, for example, are forced to walk and care for their four-legged friend. This can result in an alleviation of symptoms.

Anti-Social Behavior

One common side effect of several different mental health illnesses is a tendency to be anti-social and closed off from the world.  Pet ownership combats this behavior in two ways.

First, owners who interact with their pets get a social connection to another living being.  Although it’s not a person, this exchange can help individuals to feel less withdrawn from the rest of the population.  Also, people who have specific types of pets may find that they are more social and converse more with others.  For example, if you own a dog, you might interact with other people who are also on a walk or at an event with their animal.

Loneliness

Feelings of loneliness and detachment are common in many people who battle mental illness.  A pet offers not only companionship but something that becomes part of a daily routine.  They give their human a sense of security and purpose. This can increase positive feelings and emotions.

Alzheimer’s, Dementia, and the Elderly

Although growing old isn’t by any means a mental illness, there is a potential for cognitive decline as we age.  Several studies link pet ownership with less stress and more comfort in older adults.  Alzheimer’s patients demonstrate less anxious behavior when they have a pet keeping them company. And small dogs, cats, and birds are regular fixtures in many extended care homes thanks to their therapeutic benefits.

ADHD

Children and adults who have ADHD can benefit from having a pet at home for several reasons.

First, caring for an animal means having and keeping a regular schedule.  Striving to feed, walk, bathe, and groom the pet at the same time every day and week can assist with responsibility and focus.

In addition, pets require attention and activity.  Particularly in children, owning active animals like dogs or cats that crave playtime can be an excellent way to burn off extra energy during the day. This assures that they are calmer and more relaxed at night.  If they can get outside the benefits are even more significant as exposure to natural sunlight and oxygen may increase the ability to concentrate.

Finally, owning a pet can provide a helpful emotional outlet for those with ADHD.  Often, this condition makes people tell you to “calm down” or “stop overreacting.” But a pet will never do that.  They are a nonjudgmental companion who will listen and offer unconditional love. This could build confidence over time.

Autism

Children with autism commonly experience sensory issues, and one therapy that’s used to combat them is sensory integration activity.  These activities help children become accustomed to how something smells, feels, or sounds.  Dogs and horses are two animals used for this purpose.  Often, children with autism find a calm, safe space when they work with animals.

There is some promising new research that suggests that animals may have even more benefits for people with autism.  Interacting with them may lessen their sensory sensitivity and increase the desire and ability to form social connections.  Although more research is needed, animal therapy has a place in autism treatment plans.

Types of Animals Studied

When many people think of pets, they envision dogs or cats.  While they are high on the list of beneficial pets, positive correlations exist between several different species.  These are just a few that may offer mental health perks according to science.

Rabbits

In one study, researchers set out to determine if there was a difference between interacting with toy animals or the real thing.  They took a group of high-stress adults and asked them to pet a toy rabbit or turtle and report their results.  Overall, the toys did not produce any positive effects.

However, when participants were asked to stroke a living rabbit or turtle, they reported relief from their anxiety.

Even more impressive, these positive correlations happened regardless of whether the participants said they liked animals before the test.

Fish

Sometimes, animals can help distract us from our troubles and other times they can help us focus.  In one example, researchers added aquariums with vibrant fish to an Alzheimer’s facility and studied the results.  Patients were not only less lethargic and more attentive during their meals, but they also ate more and were less prone to pacing and outbursts.

Horses

Horses are one of the most frequently studied animals in therapy settings, thanks in part to how effective they are.  In one such case, participating in activities like grooming or leading a horse helped reduce PTSD symptoms in children and young adults.

Crickets

Although cute and cuddly are excellent qualities in a pet, they aren’t required to reap mental health benefits.  If you’re someone who prefers reptiles or insects, there are benefits too.  For example, in one study elderly adults were given five caged crickets.  They were instructed to care for them for a period of eight weeks.  At the end of the study, the participants reported less depression than their peers in a control group.

Researchers concluded that the act of caring for another living creature increased a sense of purpose. And it leads to decreased depressive symptoms.

Pets and Patient Care Plans

There is a tremendous amount of evidence to support the theory that pet ownership can have positive benefits on mental health. But despite that, they don’t often come in care plans.

Even if your doctor doesn’t recommend pet ownership as part of a treatment option, you can still take matters into your own hands.

If you or someone you love is suffering from a mental health condition, it might be helpful to get a pet.  Remember, it doesn’t have to be something high-maintenance that requires a lot of care. And it could offer important relief from symptoms.

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