Pets and mental wellness
Pets have been proven to have a positive influence on our physical and mental health. Owning a pet can lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels, reducing the risk of heart disease. But research has found that pets are also therapeutic for people with mood and anxiety disorders and other psychiatric disorders.
Pet ownership provides many mental health benefits:
- Pets can help ease loneliness or isolation. They accept us for who we are and don’t judge us.
- Physical contact is important to our mental health. Stroking and cuddling with a pet is therapeutic.
- Animals improve our mood with their companionship. We’re also likely to laugh and feel more playful when we share our home with a pet.
- Pet owners are more active. The exercise we get from walking, feeding and grooming a pet keeps our minds healthy.
- Routine is beneficial in enhancing emotional stability. Caring for a pet provides a predictable routine and link to reality.
Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT) and Pet-Facilitated Therapy (PFT) bring animals to individuals or groups in treatment facilities and long-term care facilities to allow the animals to provide healing benefits to patients of physical and mental illnesses.
Preliminary studies of this therapy have shown that animals help people feel better and connect more to those around them. In one study, after animals were brought in to freely interact with a group of patients being treated for mood disorders, psychotic disorders, and other disorders, the patients showed a significant decrease in anxiety.
Dr. Allan N. Schwartz, CSW, Ph.D., a clinical social worker and psychoanalyst in Port Charlotte, Florida, has long used trained therapy dogs with his patients. Bonnie, a black Labrador Retriever, and Mingo, a Golden Retriever, excel at easing patients’ tension. Both dogs are trained and licensed as emotional/psychiatric support dogs.
“When one of the dogs jumps up onto the couch with the patient,” he says, “she sparks conversation. People who are depressed, socially isolated or avoidant are often reluctant to talk, but, stroking the dog by their side, they begin to talk about pets they’ve had and childhood memories, feelings and attitudes toward their parents. And, through Mingo or Bonnie, a trusting relationship between doctor and patient begins.”
Dr. Schwartz treated a young woman whose severe anxiety prevented her from leaving her home and holding a job. Because they couldn’t cope with her illness, her boyfriend had left her and her friends had abandoned her. When she was brought to Dr. Schwartz’s office, he said, she was very frightened and stroked Mingo over and over.
Eventually, she adopted a puppy of her own and had him professionally trained as a support dog. She has recovered so well, she is now working, she drives and goes shopping by herself, her self-esteem and functioning have improved. She’s even reestablished her relationships with her boyfriend and friends. Animals played a large part in the successful treatment of her disorder.
American Psychiatric Association
The Healing Power of Pets, Dr. Marty Becker. Hyperion, 2002