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How Pets Support Our Mental Health

How Pets Support Our Mental Health

Everyone knows how important health is. Historically, there hasn’t been enough focus on people's mental health alongside physical health. More recently however, there has been a massive shift in culture, particularly in the UK, towards recognising the importance of mental health. Although references to mental health as a state of mind can be found in the English language before the 20th century, no technical references to the mental health field or discipline can be found before 1946. Even though the NHS went through a “ Modernising Mental Health Services” reform in 1998, it wasn't until 2007 that an actual mental health act was finally passed.

We can probably agree that we are all more open about our mental health and its impact on us. As a result, we have begun to look for ways to improve this state of mind in our everyday lives. Here’s where pets come in!

Many studies have been carried out to investigate the correlation between human’s mental state and their interactions with dogs. These studies found that dogs reduce stress, anxiety, depression, ease loneliness, encourage exercise and improve our overall health. Not surprisingly, even small interactions with dogs caused the human brain to produce oxytocin, a hormone often referred to as the “cuddle chemical.” Oxytocin increases feelings of relaxation, trust, and empathy while reducing stress and anxiety. One study reported a massive 74% of dog owners said their pet positively impacted their mental health.

Dogs provide more than companionship; they also have a positive impact on owner wellbeing and happiness by providing purpose, companionship and self-acceptance, pleasure and distraction, as well as lessening emotional pain and suffering and reducing risk behaviours. In general humans are drawn to dogs for their mostly content disposition, unconditional love and lack of prejudice. Many people say having a dog helps them meet new people when out walking together and this encourages them to get out of the house and be more active.

Although the majority of scientific studies carried out focus on the positive impact of pets on our mental health, it's worth noting that not all results returned showed a beneficial outcome. The daily impact and responsibility of owning a pet could have an adverse effect especially on those predisposed to mental health concerns. Some owners admitted that while owning a pet generally had a positive impact on their wellbeing it did produce an element of stress, especially when considering all the costs involved in adequately caring for a pet of any size or shape. Some charities and organisations aim to reduce these potential concerns while taking advantage of the amazing connections animals can provide by allowing for interactions with specially trained animals without the need for pet ownership and its related commitments.

PAT (Pets as Therapy) is a national charity founded in 1983 and ensures that everyone in the UK, no matter their circumstances, has access to the companionship of a friendly pet. Their team of over 4,000 volunteers visit hospitals, hospices, residential nursing homes, day care centres, mainstream and special needs schools, prisons and other establishments across the UK. Although any pet can become a therapy pet, most of the volunteers are dogs. After passing a temperament assessment, the successful pets go on to become regular visitors in the community providing a very important and highly valued service to people who need mental and physical health support.*

Not only are dogs good for our mental health, they are incredibly tuned in to our physical health and are used by humans as an invaluable resource. Dogs around the world are used for a multitude of tasks and skills such as, guide dogs, hearing dogs, seizure alert and response, cardiac alert, diabetic alert, allergy detection, mobility assistance, autism service dogs, psychiatric service dogs, and dogs that work for the armed forces such as the military, police and border control.

The practicalities of dog ownership are simply not viable for some people due to time / cost / work / physical restrictions. However, if you still wish to benefit from the special relationship animals can provide you can choose a pet that doesn’t require the same degree of commitment. Coming home to a small animal such as hamsters, rabbits, guinea pigs or reptiles can provide just as much enjoyment and enrichment to our lives as the larger and more demanding pets. As all cat lovers will agree, our feline friends are probably the best happy medium between the extremes of pet ownership. While these animals are relatively self-sufficient they can provide the connection (albeit on their terms) and love that ultimately improves the longevity of a positive mental attitude.