Mental health benefits of having a companion animal

Living with a companion animal is certainly good for your mental health, sometimes in surprising ways. A brief survey of recent studies:

– Within five minutes of playing with a pet, our stress hormones, especially cortisol goes down. Our levels of the “feel good” hormones: serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin go up. Companion animals increase happiness and decrease stress.

– In one study, a group of adult participants who scored high on stress measures, were told to pet a rabbit, a turtle, or a toy.  Touching the toy did not have any effect. However, stroking and playing with a rabbit or turtle reduced stress and anxiety. Interestingly, even people who said they did not like animals experienced the same benefits.

– The sensory act of stroking a pet lowers blood pressure, providing a health benefit in addition to mental health.

– Having a pet supports executive functioning development. Pets require planning, organizing, staying on schedule, prioritizing, immediate recall, sustaining effort, and task completion.

– Studies have shown that dogs can help calm hyperactive or aggressive children. In my own practice, both my dogs work with children with behavior disorders, and I have seen anecdotal evidence for this repeatedly.

– A large study by the CDC, in 2015, found that children who grew up with pets in the household had lower anxiety and stress levels. The study controlled for screen time, medical health, and physical activity. Having a pet is a protective mental health variable for children, extending through the teenage years.

– Individuals with companion animals are more mindful. Feeding, walking, veterinary care, schedules, are all prominent in the daily lives of pet owners.

– Our animals help us feel loved. One recent study asked teenagers to write about a time when they felt excluded or bullied. Then they were asked to do one of three things: write about their pet, write about their best friend, or draw a picture of their house or school. Writing about their pets was AS effective as writing about a close friend in reducing feelings of rejection.

-Companion animals support self care.  From getting up in the morning no matter what, to spending time outside in nature, to physical activity and exercise, to reminders of self-care: our animals require these things, and bring us along with them.

– Pets help people with chronic mental illness. A meta-analysis, which is also known as a synopsis of multiple studies, found significant evidence that having a pet benefits people with severe mental health conditions. One study was conducted at the University of Manchester in 2016 with patients who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and severe depression. 60% of the participants identified their pet as one of their strongest support systems. They reported that their animals distracted them from severe symptoms like suicidal thoughts, hallucinations, and ruminative worry.

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