Animals and our mental health
“Time spent with cats is never wasted.”Sigmund Freud
At any age and stage in life, caring for and having the companionship of a pet – whether it’s a cat, dog, hamster, guineapig, snake – can be an enormous comfort. Caring for a pet can offer focus and structure to the day, a sense of responsibility, purpose, and connectedness. Pets can provide a sense of calm and reassurance at times of stress or anxiety. They can help us form connections and understand more about our feelings.
Because they do not judge us we might feel we can be most ourselves when in the company of animals, we can drop our guard and there’s no need to keep up a front. It’s amazing the impact of just being able to relax, be honest and experience unconditional acceptance.
Recent research has shown anxiety in adults and children is significantly reduced after 10 mins of stroking a dog, shown through reductions in blood pressure and cortisol (stress hormone released by the adrenal glands) levels. Stroking a pet or being in the presence of an animal can bring therapeutic benefits for individuals of all ages. These are real, measurable effects on our bodies and our on emotional states, without us having to “do” anything other than be with an animal.
Over the last three years, UK schools and universities have increasingly welcomed ‘Support Dogs’ onto their staff teams in recognition of the benefits to social, physical, and psychological wellbeing of pupils across the board. Care homes and hospitals have taken similar approaches. The use of Animal Assisted Intervention (AAI) – or Animal Therapy – is now a major feature of emotional support with adults and children. Examples can range from holding and grooming a guineapig, walking a dog, stroking a cat, to programmes with larger animals, such as horses. Equine therapy is an established approach to many challenges, including behavioural difficulties, criminal rehabilitation work, and communication challenges.
A horse isn’t judging you for your slip ups, your academic struggles, your offending behaviour: everyone starts with a horse on an equal footing, the horse will respond to how you are in this moment, right now, as you attend to its needs and take the time to get to know it.
Dogs may be the obvious four-legged friends for service animals. We are very used to seeing guide dogs for people who are blind or partially sighted, but now there are many more service dogs offering support for people with (for example) social anxiety, emotional difficulties and autism. The presence of the support dog enables someone to enter situations that might otherwise be overwhelmingly stressful: the dog remains a calm reassuring presence in the face of sensory overload or complex social interactions. The dog is always there for the person who needs it, they are not going to wander off and leave you alone, they are not going to change their allegiance or feel offended because you are having a day when even looking a person in the eyes feels far too difficult.
“Sometimes the smallest things take up the most room in your heart.”Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A Milne
In a world where it may feel that someone is always asking something of you, and where many of us can at least at times feel overwhelmed by the demands of daily life, animals can be an antidote. They offer a way of keeping in touch with what really matters, including the forming of connections and the ability to feel authentic, to not be judged, to be someone that is counted on and appreciated – even if just as a warm lap for a cat to snuggle on.