Animal Therapy for the Mind, Body & Soul
We’ve all felt the emotional effects of having a beloved pet in our lives - from your dog waiting for you at the door when you get home, to your bird who wakes you up every morning with a friendly chirp, animals just have a way of making us feel better.
There are also some serious physical effects that we’re feeling from our little critters without even being aware of them. They can improve our mental health, lower our blood pressure and help us with depression, among other things - it turns out to have a pet in our lives is beneficial in more ways than one.
We are going to dive into the wonderful world of pets and how spending more time with them can immediately shift our moods and significantly improve our health.
The Physical Benefits of Therapy Animals
“Animals are such agreeable friends - they ask no questions: they pass no criticisms.” - George Eliot
Florence Nightingale herself found that having pets around reduced the anxiety levels of psychiatric patients. While she may not have had the technology to figure out exactly why this is, we do now, and the results are fascinating! Many people think only dogs can be therapy animals, when in fact cats and many other animals can be considered.
While a lot of these benefits were found with dogs and cats, it doesn’t necessarily rule out lizards, birds, etc.
Some of the physical effects animal therapy can have on us include:
- a reduction in overall physical pain
- lowered blood pressure
- improved cardiovascular health
- oxytocin release (calming effect)
- the simple act of petting produces an automatic relaxation response, thought to reduce the amount of medication needed by some people
Pets fulfill our basic human need for touch. Just taking a calm moment to stroke, hug or touch them can be enough to drop our heart rates and soothe us from whatever we are struggling with.
Mental Health Benefits of Emotional Support Animals & Comfort Pets
Emotional support animals (ESAs) have been found to help people with depression or anxiety, those suffering from PTSD or psychotic disorders, those on the autism spectrum and veterans or folks serving in the military. They provide therapeutic benefits to their owners via companionship and affection, whereas service dogs are bred specifically to help someone with a disability. ESAs also come in different species, not just dogs or horses.
Maybe we can’t deal with people but still need some love. Maybe we’re going through a rough time, a breakup, or we’re going through the grieving process. Sometimes we don’t want to face the world - or we’re just not ready to.
Dogs and cats, in particular, can pick up on our emotions, and dogs, being highly social creatures with a lingering pack mentality, may even be able to sense when someone other than their owner is in need of comfort.
What is Animal Therapy?
Animal therapy isn’t just having a cuddly companion by your side, it has serious uses in the health and wellness sector.
Animal therapy can…
- help us to communicate more/increase socialization
- boost our moods and lessen depression or anxiety
- lower the feelings of being isolated, lonely or left out
- provide comfort
- lessen boredom
- aid children to overcome speech and emotional disorders
- create motivation for people to recover more quickly
- improve focus and self-confidence
- improve recovery time and joint movement after accidents
Let’s also not forget that pets can encourage us to get more physical activity! Dogs especially can get you off the couch and into nature - increasing your exercise and allowing you to get some fresh air in some green space will help your mental state.
Anyone who’s had a playful kitty knows that you don’t have to go outside to get some steps in - chasing them around the house can be a workout of its own!
Who Can Benefit from Pet Therapy?
- People with anxiety or stress disorders like PTSD
- People with dementia or cardiovascular diseases
- People in long-term care
- Children in need of medical care or surgery
- A variety of people with differing physical and emotional needs
“Animals are reliable, many full of love, true in their affections, predictable in their actions, grateful and loyal. Difficult standards for people to live up to.” - Alfred A. Montapert
Pets Therapy at Work
Luckily, for those of us who enjoy having pets around, bringing your pet to work is becoming more common, especially when businesses can see how effective they can be for boosting morale and productivity.
Suddenly, people who you rarely see are coming to you in order to meet little Bruce. Conversation strikes up, you find common ground, etc. It’s easier to approach a pet over a human sometimes - thus, their presence naturally promotes camaraderie and communication, which then makes for a better work environment.
While having Bruce at your side all day may give you a sense of calm and relief, pets at work functions as a health benefit only when they’re well behaved and everyone feels respected. If half the office is allergic or little Brucie barks every time someone comes near you, this will obviously have a counter effect than what you intended.
In the best case, you feel happy that your furball is with you and not lonely at home, your co-workers may feel more inclined to take a break, relax and get to know each other better and Bruce gets 500% more love and attention. Everybody wins!
Related Article: Man’s Best Friend: How Dogs Sense & Heal Human Emotion
Don’t Have a Pet?
Some of us are not able to keep a pet in our homes, whether due to bylaws, strict landlords or a busy schedule that just doesn’t allow enough time to fairly spend with them. There are many ways you can still benefit from someone on one time!
- Do you have friends with pets? Guaranteed they would love it if you would housesit/walk them/come over for a cuddle
- Go to an off-leash dog park - don’t worry about looking weird - it might be strange if you hang out at a kid’s park without a child, but most people at an off-leash won’t care - everyone walks around petting other people’s mutts
- Volunteer at a shelter, sanctuary, zoo or vet clinic (some shelters have roles where all you have to do is cuddle an animal that needs some love!)
- Go to a Pet Expo or show - this is a great way to log time with all kinds of critters and to ask questions about different species, as pet owners or experts are on standby
You don’t have to own a pet to benefit from their love!
Share Your Pet!
On the flip side, if you have a little time to spare and are looking to meet some new people or just philanthropically looking to spread the love your little critter gives you, there are many opportunities to volunteer with little Fido and Muffy.
As much as this time will benefit someone who needs a little bit of love and non-judgment, or just to de-stress, chances are your little buddy will also reap reward - all that extra love and attention is good for them too - plus many animals are looking to be useful, beyond watching your house for you.
The mental stimulation of going somewhere new, being on their best behavior and meeting all kinds of new folks with their own different smells can be great for your pet’s brain - they need more than just physical exercise, just as we do. Plus, they’ll sleep like babies when you get home!
Check in with your community for ways you can volunteer with your pet. From senior’s homes and hospitals to universities and offices, many, many people would love to meet your pet - and receive a little bit of extra attention themselves.
There you have it - when it comes to self-care, one of the best things we can do is log some one on one time with our favorite animals to help us de-stress.
We all get a little lonely from time to time - this is the human condition after all. When we feel like we can’t rely on other people to help us with our emotional issues, we can always count on our furry and not so furry little friends to be there for support, a comforting shoulder to cry on and some unconditional love.
Related Article: Self-Care Sunday: Step Outside Your Comfort Zone
* Editor’s note: This article was previously published February 9th, 2019 and has been updated for relevance and accuracy.