The Pet Effect on our mental health is well recognized as interacting with animals and taking care of their needs has been shown to help lower stress levels, enhance our self-esteem and well being and help us to build healthy habits, among many other benefits.
The first research on pets and mental health was published 30 years ago. Psychologist Alan Beck of Purdue University and psychiatrist Aaron Katcher of the University of Pennsylvania conducted a study which measured what happens to the body when a person pets a friendly dog. They found that:
- Blood pressure went down
- Heart rate slowed
- Breathing became more regular
- Muscle tension relaxed.
This was the first study to discover physical evidence of the mental health benefits of pets and since then, scientists have discovered much more about the connection between pets and mental health.
Animal Assisted Therapy
Founded on these proven, scientific benefits of interacting with animals, Animal-Assisted Therapy is a growing field that uses dogs or other animals to help people recover from or better cope with health problems, such as heart disease, cancer and mental health disorders.
According to Psychology Today, studies reporting on animal-assisted therapy found positive outcomes and overall improved emotional well-being in those with autism, medical conditions, or behavioral issues, as well as being helpful for those battling illnesses like depression, schizophrenia, or addiction.
The most common kind of therapy animal is a therapeutic visitation animal. These are often pets that go to various places, such as hospitals, schools, detention facilities, nursing homes and other places of care, but the animal returns home with their owner at the end of the day. They are also used to help people in the aftermath of a traumatic event.
Dogs are the most common type of animal utilized as therapy animals but cats, rabbits and even rats or hamsters have also been shown to provide exceptional therapeutic support to people in need.
Equine Assisted Therapy is another growing therapeutic field and has been show to be particularly effective for treating adolescents experiencing depression, anxiety, and/or trauma-related symptoms, as well as ADHD, autism, dissociative disorders, and other mental health diagnoses.
We came across a wonderful story of a 12 year-old boy with ASD who came to a therapeutic equine centre. His behavioural issues were becoming unmanageable by his parents at home and within his classroom environment he was getting involved in fights. He was very unwilling to undertake any tasks asked of him. His speech was incoherent and he appeared to his parents to be angry and frustrated. Initially, the boy was nervous about animals. However, with patience, instruction and time he mastered how to use his body language and voice in order to get the horses to respond and take instruction from him. This enabled him to increase his confidence, improve his relationships and have more focused communication with the horses and in turn others. From a physical perspective, he even began to stand taller, prouder and could give and hold more eye contact. He became fitter and undertook any task asked of him with enthusiasm. The animal-assisted approach worked for this particular boy and he was re-integrated into his school environment having learned a whole new approach to communication. This made for a more progressive schooling and better relationships at home.
Emotional Support Animals
An Emotional Support Animals (ESA) is a type of animal that provides comfort to help relieve a symptom or effect of a person’s disability. Though they may sound similar, ESA’s are slightly different than Therapy Animals. Whereas a Therapy Animal is an animal who is specifically trained to provide emotional and/or psychological support to people in need, an emotional support animal provides their human with a strong and comforting emotional connection. However, because they aren’t doing a “job” similar to a service or therapy animal, they have fewer legal accommodations.
Dogs once cornered the market on being therapy pets, but now bunnies, pigs and even ducks are making their way into the laps and hearts of people with a range of conditions.
If you think that an emotional support animal would be beneficial for your health, talk to your mental health provider. An ESA can be an animal that you already share your life with, or you could go out and adopt. Although ESAs do not have to be professionally trained, basic obedience and manners are essential so they can behave in public spaces and not add to the stress in your daily life.
Having an animal in your life can be life-changing and anyone who hasn’t experienced the simple basic joy of animals just doesn’t know what they’re missing.