What is it about having a pet? Whether it is the goldfish you had as a child, the hamster that shares your bedroom, or the dog that you bring to work – there is something about the companionship a pet offers. But how are pets improving your overall health?
Pets and loneliness
Increased by the pandemic, loneliness can lead to symptoms of depression and higher stress levels. Pets can help to reduce loneliness by offering a purpose and routine. If your dog is barking because they need a walk, you have little choice in the matter. Exercise with a pet can help with social interaction, which can reduce loneliness and increase self-esteem.
Some pets can also pick up on human words and phrases, making it feel like a conversation. This can be extremely important for those who live on their own. Pets can also help humans to speak about and resolve problems, with comforting silences and affection.
Pets can help with disorders
Autism involves a range of conditions, including challenges with social skills and repetitive behaviour. Pet therapy sessions have been shown to increase social functions, decrease isolation, and improve independence in autistic children. Dogs specifically are extremely loyal. For children who struggle with social situations – communicating and building relationships with animals can help to reduce loneliness and settle nerves. Having a loyal friend in social situations can help to build confidence.
Guinea pigs are also significant for children with autism. Research has found that children’s social skills improve after being in contact with these animals. Guinea pigs are very relaxed animals that are excellent for children to handle. The same research also found that children were calmer in play sessions with guinea pigs, compared with reading alone or playing with others. Guinea pigs – and pets in general – can have a calming effect, putting children at ease.
Pets can also help those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). This can cause restlessness, impulsive behaviour, and poor concentration. With pets such as dogs – not only can a walk help by decreasing energy levels and increasing concentration – but it also offers a daily routine. This provides a framework for those with ADHD.
Pets can help with stress relief
A recent study found that 74% of pet owners state that owning a pet has improved their mental health. Stress, anxiety, and depression can significantly contribute to mental health problems. Any pet that you can stroke and hold can help to reduce the ‘stress hormone’ cortisol, while increasing the ‘feel good’ hormones such as serotonin and oxytocin. Even watching animals can have a calming effect – a reason many dentists and hospitals have fish tanks.
The physical exercise that some pets offer can also help to reduce anxiety and depression, while improving physical health. The act of exercising helps to increase endorphins – which can help with depression – while also helping the brain better cope with anxiety and stress.
Leah Bailie is a pet lover based in the UK.