Home Mental Health & Well-Being How Animals Can Support Mental and Emotional Health

How Animals Can Support Mental and Emotional Health

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For thousands of years, humans and animals have shared a special connection. While historians believe early interactions with animals revolved around using them for resources such as meat and fur,  humans later saw similarities between themselves and animals and became more invested in them at an emotional level.

This emotional connection eventually led to the domestication of animals such as dogs and cats. More recently, research is uncovering more about the positive effects of animal companionship on the mental and emotional health of their owners, both in therapeutic and nontherapeutic settings. 

How animals support well-being 

Many animals possess a degree of emotional intelligence. Dogs are especially attuned to the needs of humans. Emotional support animals or ESAs, in particular, are intended for those experiencing emotional and mental health challenges (Wellness Wag provides a useful resource for this) Other ways animals can help boost mental health include:

  • Pet ownership offers many mental health benefits outside of therapy contexts. 
  • Therapy animals intended to provide support to groups in places like hospitals
  • Service dogs provide assistance to people with disabilities and sensory impairments, as well as health conditions such as epilepsy

These are different roles with different levels of legal protection. For example, while emotional support animals are covered by the Fair Housing Act, allowing people to keep their pet in their home regardless of a “no-pet policy”, typically they do not receive any training, unlike service dogs, which are also the only type covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act. 

Pet- and animal-assisted therapy

Although animals have been used for therapeutic purposes for many years, the use of therapy animals has yet to become mainstream. That said, the positive benefits of animal therapy on conditions such as stress and social anxiety are becoming more widely-known. 

While pet therapy tends to be more informal, based  on offering companionship and  (in much the same way as an animal would) emotional support, often in places such as nursing homes, animal-assisted therapy is a form of treatment involving a licensed healthcare professional. 

The mental health benefits of animals

Studies into the bond between animals and humans are still quite recent, with more research to be done into the effects of animal interactions on specific conditions. Although some findings suggest that while human-animal interaction can help decrease levels of the stress hormone cortisol, it can also help to promote:

  • Oxytocin, the “love” hormone associated with bonding and contentment
  • Dopamine, a hormone and neurotransmitter associated with feelings of reward
  • Serotonin, the “happy chemical”, also helps regulate functions like sleep
  • Endorphins are feel-good neurotransmitters which help to calm anxiety

Spending time with animals is also known to reduce feelings of anxiety, loneliness and isolation, which can be especially beneficial to those who struggle in social settings. Caring for a pet also adds a sense of structure and purpose, which can be motivating and offer people a sense of greater control of their lives. 

Other benefits 

Interaction with animals is also known to have positive effects on physical well-being, Mind-body connection takes a holistic view of overall health and how different symptoms interact, as opposed to considering the body and brain as separate). 

Sometimes physical ill illness can result from mental and emotional difficulties, and sometimes vice-versa. Being around animals can help reduce pain by lowering cortisol, which can in turn reduce tension in the body.

Choosing a pet based on personal needs

Much of the research into animal-human bonds centres on dogs and horses, both of which require outdoor exercise, which can help boost their owner’s mood through physical movement. However, this might not meet the needs of every owner.

For people who have conditions that restrict mobility, lower-energy pets such as pet rats or rabbits may be more suitable. Cats are another option, although even cats (especially those who live indoors) require regular daily playtime to give them exercise and mental stimulation.

How to seek support 

Pet ownership is a major commitment. For people managing personal health conditions in addition to day-to-day stress, adding in pet care on top could be challenging to deal with. For this reason, it’s generally a good idea to speak with a qualified and licensed healthcare professional before making any decisions.

Animals are sensitive to human emotions. While this can help them to develop an understanding of their owner’s needs, they can also feel stress, so it helps to understand how best to take care of them so that they can stay healthy and well.

Dennis Relojo-Howell is the managing director of Psychreg.


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