The Human Animal Bond & the Importance of Our Pets to Our Mental Health
For those who share our homes with animals, we know that our pets are capable of amazing things. You don’t have to look far for incredible heroics—from the cat, Strider, who warded off a pair of burglars, to the 2016 American Humane organization’s Hero Dog of the Year, Hooch, who overcame horrible abuse to help his rescuer fight a battle with addiction, there are endless stories to illustrate the innate courage and compassion of our beloved companions.
This intuition is part of what makes animals invaluable members of society and of our families. We’ve been able to harness this perceptivity to train police dogs, search and rescue dogs, guide and hearing dogs, PTSD support dogs, seizure alert dogs—the list goes on, and continues to grow as we recognize further potential.
But what about the less tangible impacts our pets have on our lives? Their ability to help you forget about a bad day as soon as you walk through the door to an enthusiastic greeting? No matter how my day has gone, I know I can look forward to one of my dogs, Finley, greeting me at the door with a “gift” (usually a rope toy), and this innocent gesture never fails to make me smile.
There are evenings when I want nothing more than to snuggle on the couch with a cuddly companion on either side of me, and there is no doubt that these bonding interactions benefit my mental health by offering emotional support. Beyond that, the human-animal bond, and pet ownership, is mutually beneficial in many other ways.
Whether you’re adopting your first pet as an adult or teaching your child the basics of animal care, pet ownership is a massive responsibility. It provides a feeling of purpose and can help you feel valued and important, even on your worst days. Your pet relies on you, and being able to keep him happy and healthy can be gratifying in the most selfless way. The financial responsibility of pet ownership can also lead you to better money management techniques.
For children, the family pet and his needs are often part of the chore list, shared by the family. Teaching the importance of providing regular walks, potty breaks, and healthy meals from a young age can help them learn to appreciate their four-legged companions’ needs.
Recently, I found a four-week-old kitten in a car’s wheel well in my office parking lot. She was hiding from the first of Hurricane Matthew’s rains as the storm crept into North Carolina. I began looking for a home for her, and a fellow animal-loving friend reached out; her daughter, Grace, had been asking for a kitten for a long time.
Because Grace excels in school and eagerly helps with the other family pets, her mom thought she was ready for a kitten of her own, and Grace excitedly embraced the opportunity. She and a friend (the kitten’s official aunt) went to the vet for kitten’s first check-up and even got to examine her ear mites. The kitten, now named Shadow, will grow up with love and care, and Grace will hone her skills as a responsible pet parent.
One of the quickest ways to positively boost our minds is physical activity, and pets make it easy to get outside and get moving. Regular walks outside in the sunshine will
get you the vitamin D you need—an essential vitamin in combating a variety of physical and mental conditions, including depression. In addition, exercise increases your body’s production and release of mood-boosting serotonin and dopamine, helping you look and feel your best. You’ll build your self-esteem while building muscle.
Earlier this year, we saw the mutual rescue story of Eric O’Grey and Peety. Eric was obese and suffering from Type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure. His sedentary lifestyle was slowly killing him, until a doctor recommended he adopt a local shelter dog, and he found Peety. From his website, ericandpeety.com, Eric explains:
“I was unconscious until Peety came into my life, and I am now a better person in every aspect of my life because of what he taught me. Peety’s love for me was absolute and unconditional, which taught me the meaning of true friendship and how to love myself and others. Peety believed I was the greatest person on Earth, and so I decided to become the person he believed me to be. I never knew
the meaning of personal responsibility until Peety became responsible for me. Because Peety was completely selfless towards me, he taught me to care about myself and to be more selfless toward others. And because Peety helped me believe in myself and again, I was able to lose weight by sticking with my new healthy lifestyle and walking him for at least a half hour twice each day.”
The couch cuddling I mentioned earlier is one example of a close, physical activity that is conducive to oxytocin release. Known commonly as the bonding hormone, oxytocin is related to both stress and anxiety relief, and it can help to reduce blood pressure and counteract cortisol (stress hormone) levels. The simple act of smiling when your cat does something outrageous is enough to get those happy neurotransmitters firing. So, that feeling of your work stress melting away when you get home to your pets? It’s all hormonal, and it’s mutual!
A 2015 Science magazine study examined how the oxytocin emitted when we engage in eye contact facilitates strong connections to our furry friends. They tested both human and canine levels and found that both species produce the hormone when in the presence of the other. Their results suggest the same mutual hormonal response as seen between mothers and infants. A similar test was performed on cats, which saw the cats’ oxytocin levels increase, though not as significantly as the dogs’.
Pets can also reduce anxiety by making us feel safer in our homes. They possess an especially perceptive extra set of eyes and ears. While it can be annoying to be alerted anytime a UPS truck is within a mile radius (speaking from personal experience), it is comforting to know that nobody will be creeping up to my house without my knowing. A dog is one of the top deterrents for a potential burglar, according to a 2014 University of North Carolina study.
Pets are always there to listen to your woes without interruption (until said UPS truck drives by), and they’ll keep you from being lonely. Our pets, in some cases, may know us better than our friends and family because they can pick up on subtle shifts in our emotional energy. Emotional Support Animals are pets that are prescribed by a mental health professional to provide comfort and combat a patient’s emotional disability. These pets are different from specifically trained therapy animals, and they do not even require specialized training. Their mere calming presence is enough. According to research from the American Psychological Association, all people can benefit from an animal’s emotional support, not only people facing mental health challenges.
In addition to being companions themselves, pets can help even the most reclusive introvert get out and about and meet new people. Going on walks, attending group training classes, and visiting the local dog park are just a few of the activities that offer socialization to both owner and dog. You already have something in common with your fellow animal lover, so it’s a perfect icebreaker. And who knows, your dog may make a new friend, too.
With or without the scientific evidence, we know our pets impact our emotional daily lives in endless ways. By helping us feel like valued providers, they instill a sense of importance. By helping us be active and playful, they keep our physical and mental health in check. Finally, simply by always being there for us unconditionally, our pets are as reliable to us as we strive to be for them.
How has your pet impacted your mental health?
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