Should you approach virtually any pet owner they will no doubt be more than willing to discuss with
you the many memories which they have formed through caring for their companion animals,
however, is there perhaps something more to the human animal bond formed between pets and
their owners? Phrases such as ‘a dog is a man’s best friend’ have been used for the longest of time,
highlighting the belief that there is, perhaps, something rather unique and treasured about the
companionship that comes from pet ownership. Does this not lead one to wonder what exactly it is
that people gain from these bonds?
Scientific research has embarked on a mission to answer the above question and has consequently uncovered many positive effects from pet ownership for both physical and mental health. It is due to
this that animals are frequently incorporated into therapy programmes. Literature indicates that this
occurred from as early as 1792 and in the mid nineteenth century Florence Nightingale even acknowledged the benefits of pets in the treatment of individuals suffering from various illnesses.
- Animals were brought into mental health institutions in the late eighteenth century to encourage
socialization among patients.
- Dr. Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, used his dog, a Chow by the name of Jo-Fi, during his pioneering psychoanalysis sessions with great success, however, it was only in 1962 that the first scientific research paper highlighting the therapeutic benefits of animals was published, written by Boris Levinson.
- The use of animals in therapy sessions is referred to as Animal Assisted Therapy and is increasing in popularity due to the wonderful, positive results that occur for many physically and psychologically ill patients, however, simply by being the owner of a companion animal, you can reap the rewards that frequently arise from human animal interactions. The benefits of pet ownership are far reaching. Physically, pet ownership has been shown to improve fitness levels, lower blood pressure and reduce heart disease risks.
- As if this isn’t enough, pet ownership is also known to have amazing benefits for psychological well-being. To name a few of these benefits, pet ownership has been shown to reduce depression, anxiety and stress levels, assist with the management of mental illnesses, decrease loneliness, improve life satisfaction, help children with ADHD as well as helping children with autism spectrum disorder. Below are some of the many ways in which pets assist with the conditions mentioned above.
Pets encourage routine formation and structure due to their need to be regularly fed, exercised, groomed etc. This gives the owner a sense of purpose and a feeling of being valuable and needed, something that is frequently lost in those suffering from depression. Dogs in particular encourage their owners to spend more time outdoors and increase exercise participation. This in turn may help to alleviate depression as venturing outside of the house as well as exercise is known to encourage mood enhancement. Pets provide their owners with unconditional love and acceptance, something that is very important for depression management. Animals are also known to have the wonderful ability of making people smile. It is extremely difficult to conceal a smile when watching an animal play and you will never experience a greeting which is more enthusiastic than that of a dog, which will be all but impossible not to smile at! The act of smiling triggers nerve transmitters which are linked to feelings of happiness.
Anxiety and Stress:
Scientific research has shown that the act of simply petting an animal encourages the
release of oxytocin, a hormone which aids in anxiety reduction. Additionally, companion animals provide a constant support system for their owners, helping to increase trust as well as acting as confidants whom owners can confide in which can assist in stress and anxiety reduction.
Mental Illness Management:
Pets help to create a sense of control due to the routine care which owners must provide for
them. Psychologically ill people often lack a sense of control in their life which can be highly
distressing. Pets can also assist in distracting people from disturbing symptoms such as hearing voices,
suicidal thoughts or obsessive tendencies which may arise due to mental illnesses. Pets offer continual support and affection without the need to understand their owner’s condition which is frequently distressing to explain. This unconditional acceptance helps the owner to feel more comfortable and, hopefully, more accepting of their condition. Additionally, pets frequently can sense mood changes or when their owners are in distress and attempt to comfort and distract them in some way, for example by jumping onto their lap, licking their hands or, in the case of a dog, barking, in order to shift their owner’s focus
Pets provide wonderful companionship for their owners, providing someone to share daily
routines with. This is especially helpful in reducing loneliness levels in the elderly as well as
people who live on their own. Companion animals also increase opportunities for social interactions and assist with social anxiety by providing owners with a topic for discussion and focus, helping to increase
socialization which may reduce loneliness.
For the elderly, companion animals are known to increase overall quality of life, provide a
sense of worth, value and meaning to life, assist with the adherence to a daily schedule, help
with relaxation, enhance mobility as well as providing companionship, all increasing life
satisfaction. In the general population, pet ownership is associated with improved quality of life through
social support, reduced depression as well as other psychosocial predictors of health, all of
which lead to an increase in life satisfaction.
Children with ADHD can benefit greatly from owning a pet. Being responsible for some of
the jobs required to care for a pet can help the child to be responsible, learn empathetic
skills as well as benefitting from the structure of a schedule. Pets need to be played with which is a wonderful way for children to burn off excess energy which frequently is associated with ADHD. The exercise and fresh air from outdoor activities will also help with the circulation of oxygen filled blood to the brain leading to an increase in concentration levels. Additionally, pets do not criticise their owners, they do not complain about excess energy levels, fidgeting behaviour or a short attention span, they rather provide unconditional love and acceptance which is often difficult for parents to show consistently to their child with ADHD. This may help with self-confidence levels which are built through a sense of unconditional love and acceptance. Pets are also great listeners and so are perfect for children to talk to and confide in without fear of criticism or judgemental remarks.
Companion animals can be highly beneficial for children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Pets can assist with the improvement of social skills, help to reduce repetitive behaviours, increase attention and concentration, reduce stress and anxiety levels as well as assist with the development of both verbal and non-verbal communication skills. Another growing trend is the use of trained service dogs for children with ASD. These dogs are known to assist with the reduction of bolting behaviour, increase social skills, help with
anxiety reduction, reduce emotional outbursts as well as assisting the caregivers of children
with ASD in numerous ways.
Can a Companion Pet Help You?
From the above it is clear to see that companion animals can be an asset to both physical and mental
well-being. Virtually any animal has the power to provide their owner with some form of mental and
physical benefit, be it a rabbit, a bird, a guinea pig, a horse, a cat or, probably the most common, a
dog. Although there are many considerations to be taken into account prior to obtaining a pet, for
example available time for the care that they will require, suitability of housing and financial
considerations, the companionship gained from owning a pet is very special and worth considering.
There will certainly be many people out there who will disagree with the statements above,
however, for those who are open to the prospect of obtaining a pet and who are in a position to do
so, it would definitely be something to seriously consider as the bond which can be formed with a
pet is something to be cherished for eternity. There is such a variety of companion animals to choose
from, there will no doubt be an animal available who will be able to suit your requirements and still
provide you with some amazing benefits.
In conclusion, it appears that if you are looking for a new approach to improving your mental or
physical health, unconditional love and acceptance, loyal companionship, a possible exercise partner
or someone to greet you with immense excitement, regardless of how long or short a time you have
been away, then a pet is certainly for you!
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Article Written by: Emma Martin