Mental Health Awareness Week: how our pets help us

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As Mental Health Awareness Week 2022 starts, with ‘loneliness’ as its theme, Clinical Animal Behaviourist Rachel Rodgers explains how pets can provide mental health support.

Research carried out by Everypaw Pet Insurance shows a marked rise on Google searches into relating to animal-assisted therapies and emotional pet support, with a 200 per cent increase in online searches for ’emotional pet support’ in the past three months.

“There has been a rise, or seemingly a rise, in popularity due to social media,” Rodgers says.

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Image by Richard Murgatroyd Photography

“It’s important to note that there is a difference between pets, emotional support animals and animal-assisted therapies because they provide support in different ways.

“In the UK, emotional support animals are not seen as the same as assistance animals and are not at present formally recognised. Assistance dogs without doubt provide emotional support, but no ADUK organisation currently trains dogs purely to bring comfort or companionship”.

Rodgers explains that there are four ways pets can help with our mental health

    1. Increase in physical and psychological wellness – According to research, simply stroking a pet has been shown to help lower people’s blood pressure and heart rate which has physical benefits.
      Also in terms of mental health, having a pet helps people to feel calmer as the surge of stress hormones within the blood levels also lowers, instead giving us a rise in dopamine and serotonin.

    2. Improved verbal communication – A pet can help keep people social, particularly those with dogs as whilst they may not feel able to get up and leave the house for themselves, they do it for the pet as they know that the dog needs it.
      Plus, it can create another support system for you as you’ll get to know other dog parents who also go for walks at a similar time to you. This can also improve verbal communication.For some it helps them to have an increase in verbal communication. Whereas they may have little they want to talk about themselves, they are more confident or comfortable talking to others about their pet!

    3. Companionship – Research shows that loneliness can be linked to depression, particularly in older adults. Pets offer companionship to help combat loneliness as you can talk to them whenever you like and they’re a constant presence in the home. Many pets, especially cats and dogs, will sit with you while you’re watching TV or working and also want to play with you so you’re never truly left alone.
      People often find that even boring day to day chores become more interesting and manageable due to the companionship of their pet simply being present.

    4. Stability and routine – Responsibility of caring for another living being promotes well being which is why some residential homes have coups of chickens etc for the residents to care for.
      Routine and responsibility give you something to focus on and they can make life feel less uncertain. For many, having the routine that comes with a pet helps not only the person who may have mental health problems, but also their wider family/friends.

Rodger believes that the best animal companions when it comes to helping one’s mental health are dogs, cats – and then, perhaps more unexpectedly, guinea pigs and goldfish!

“Perhaps not one many people would think of, and I’d recommend having more than one as they’re really sociable animals, but Guinea Pigs are more robust than a hamster and are less likely to sleep all through the day,” she says. “They have a great range of vocals, and guinea pig ‘popcorning’ is guaranteed to make you smile.”

As for Goldfish, they are “underrated but great for anyone who has fur/hair allergies,” Rodger says

“Watching them moving through the water has a great calming effect.”

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