Pets and Mental Health
Why we love our pets
Approximately 58% of households in Canada own at least one pet – and the numbers are continuously rising. Research on the benefits of owning a pet have been ongoing for years. These studies show that pets increase our mental and physical health by lowering blood pressure, reducing stress, and increasing quality of life.
Owning a dog can get you engaging in up to 20 minutes more exercise per week than the average person. This extra cardiovascular exercise combined with the calming benefits of canine companionship has been shown to improve recovery for heart attack patients and decrease the risk of further cardiac issues. Cardiac patients with pets typically have a higher life expectancy and better quality of life. In the general population, the risk of heart disease is lower in people who own a dog versus people who do not own pets.
However, pet ownership does not come without work. If you are thinking about getting a pet, first ensure that you have the means to properly care for them. All pets require frequent vet visits to keep them in optimal health, as well as food, water, and daily mental stimulation. Dogs require additional time for training and exercise.
Why our pets love us
If you decide that pet ownership is right for you, remember that your pet will be dependent on you for all of its needs. But do our pets only love us for the benefits we provide them with? Animal behaviour specialists say no. Pets display signs of unconditional love and acceptance for their owners.
When we interact with our pets, we release the hormone oxytocin. This is often called the “love hormone”, as it is responsible for bonding and creating feelings of love and closeness. What is important to note, is that when we interact with our pets, they release oxytocin too! Dogs release oxytocin upon any interaction with familiar humans. Cats also release this love hormone while being stroked.
To study what exactly this means in terms of how our pets view us, a research team examined an important reward centre in dogs’ brains (the caudate nucleus) in response to different scents. They found that the reward centre was more highly activated by the scent of the dog’s owner or familiar person; even more so than familiar dogs. This means that dogs feel more connection and happiness in response to their owner than any other scent tested.
Studies on cat behaviour have demonstrated that although they do not show love in the same way dogs do, cats respond to their owners in special ways that prove their connection. Cats may raise their tails, blink slowly, and rub against their owners to display their sense of comfort in their presence. Cats also have a special way of communicating with humans – meowing. Cats in nature do not communicate with mews; it is something they reserve for their human caregivers.
The impact on mental health
Pets have been shown in multiple studies to have a great positive impact on our mental health and wellbeing. So much so that they are even used in some types of therapy such as equine assisted therapy, stress reduction therapies, and school-based animal-assisted interventions. These animal assisted therapies typically show the best results when paired with a comprehensive treatment plan. For example, patients with an acquired brain injury undergoing cognitive rehabilitation treatment show faster recovery with the addition of animal-assisted therapy.
Most of us are familiar with the use of service dogs for assisting the visually impaired with day-to-day tasks, but service animals have become more frequently employed for a variety of jobs in recent years. Animals can be used to detect physical health symptoms before or as they occur, resulting in more immediate medical help or the prevention of major injuries. Service dogs have been effectively trained to detect problematic blood sugar levels in patients with diabetes, so that they can act quickly to stabilise themselves before more serious medical interventions are necessary. Other service dogs have been trained to detect seizures before they occur, giving patients time to get to a safe area. These dogs can also be trained to seek help or move their human companion into a position for better recovery and stabilisation. Service dogs may also be trained in suicide prevention and for limiting negative effects of various mental disorders including PTSD.
Pets do not have to be certified service animals to have a huge impact on our wellbeing. Emotional support pets may have different legal designations from service animals, but they can provide major positive benefits for owners with anxiety, depression, trauma, and more. Many people can testify to the benefits of having an animal companion when going through a difficult period or a major life transition as well. Recent research on mental health during the Covid-19 pandemic found that people with pets had higher levels of mental wellbeing than those without. People with pets felt that they could cope better with adverse situations, and experienced more positive emotions during lockdown.
So what causes this boost in positive emotions in the presence of a pet? Studies show that it is not just the regular exercise or feelings of responsibility that come with pet ownership. Residents of long-term care facilities were found to have increased cognitive functioning and decreased symptoms of depression when they were simply visited by a therapy dog once per week. The simple act of petting an animal can be enough to increase positivity and wellbeing.
Pets of all species can have a positive effect on physical and mental health for people of many different demographics. While most current studies spotlight dogs and their healing benefits, there is an increasing recognition of cats, horses, cows, and even dolphins as candidates for animal-assisted therapies and emotional support animals. However Pet therapy as the main or only treatment is not recommended for any mental health condition. Continue to watch for new applications of pets in healthcare, and consider thanking your dog or cat for the abundance of benefits they bring to your life with a tasty treat today!
About the Author:
Jenny Stark is one of our Therapists Under Supervision at CMAP Health. Jenny completed a Bachelor of Science in Behavioural Neuroscience in 2017 at Memorial University of Newfoundland and is now completing her Master of Arts in Counselling Psychology at Yorkville University, She aims to bring a collaborative, person-centred approach to her clients in working towards self-growth and holistic wellbeing.