This week is Mental Health Awareness Week – and it’s such an important conversation to be part of, because mental health problems are, sadly, very common. In fact, about 1 in 4 people in the UK will suffer a mental health problem in any one year. The most common specific problems are anxiety and depression, but there are of course many, many more. Mental health problems can tear a person apart from the inside. They can cause relationships with families and friends to break down, lead to self harm or suicide, or even exacerbate physical ailments such as heart problems. However, in recent years, there has been a great deal of research on whether pets and companion animals can help prevent, or even manage, mental health problems.
Are pets generally good for mental health?
In general – yes. The evidence is now very strong that having a pet reduces both the risk and the severity of many mental health problems. In fact, the pet doesn’t even necessarily have to be yours – close contact with loving domestic animals can have real benefits.
How would that work?
This is an area that’s still being researched. However, there are five key factors that seem to be important:
- Unconditional love. Your pet loves you, without reservation – and that’s something we all need. But if your mood or self-esteem are low, the boost that you can get from knowing you’re loved is incredible.
- Companionship. Loneliness is a scourge of modern life… We text, rather than speak, we message, rather than write, we stare into our phones rather than each other’s faces. But if you have a mental health problem, this can easily be more than socially awkward, driving a downward spiral. If you have another living, loving, creature to keep you company, you’re never completely alone.
- Responsibility. When you have to look after another living thing, you have to do it. Even on a bad day, you still need to feed them, walk them, care for them. It can sometimes be just enough to get you going in the morning.
- Social interaction. Many mental health problems are exacerbated by loneliness and isolation. Many pets, especially dogs and horses, require you to do something with them – walk them, got to the yard, or whatever – where you’ll meet and interact with other humans as well. A pet is the perfect ice-breaker (even better than the weather!) to get you talking to people – who will often open up in their company.
- Physical health. There’s good evidence now that people with dogs, in particular, do more exercise than people without. And that makes sense, as the dog needs walking whether you want to go out or not! But the endorphin boost from exercise, or even a bimble, out in the green world can take the edge off a wide range of mental health problems, including depression and anxiety disorders.
What mental health problems can pets help with?
In general, it is thought that pets are particularly helpful in managing depression, loneliness, some types of anxiety, and some forms of dementia. They are also increasingly being used to support children with stress (especially around exams), ADHD and those on the autistic spectrum. You can read more about the range of issues that pets can help with here.
Are there any examples of pets being used in this way?
There are any number of projects in the UK doing this! In fact, I have experience of helping to put one together in a local secondary school. The school have a puppy (now grown into a very gentle, very affectionate dog) to help manage exam stress, but also to help students with particular education needs to engage. She has been incredibly popular, and it’s noticeable that there have been students who have said that the only reason they come into school is to see Shola.
Here at VetHelpDirect, we work with a charity who look after the pets of homeless people across the UK. We spoke to one of their founders, Jade about mental health and pets.
“One of the most important aims of StreetVet is to foster and protect the human animal bond. For many of our clients, their pet is their only companion giving warmth, protection and friendship. The relationships we see vary from owners who have had their dogs since before they were homeless to one owner who served with their dog in Afghanistan. In many situations their dog provides them with a sense of purpose, responsibility and routine. One of our clients said to me -“ I look after him in the day, he looks after me a night “ and it is a quote I often remember. Spending 24/7 with your pet creates a bond that is palpable, they become a team relying on each other for support.”
What pets are most best for mental health benefits?
Any pet can be effective, as long as there’s a bond between them and their person. However, most of the work has been done with dogs, cats and horses. It’s generally advised that domestic animals are most effective. This is because as they have been bred (and in some cases evolved) to live with us, and therefore can interact with humans at a deeper level.
Does having a pet mean I won’t get a mental health problem?
Unfortunately, no. It does seem to reduce the risk, though, and probability of any mental health issues being serious and long-lasting.
I’ve got a mental health problem, should I get a pet?
It depends – we’d always recommend you talk to your doctor or mental health professional first. It’s also important to make sure that you can take care of them – it needs to be a two-way street.
The ideal situation, though, is you and your pet looking after each other, the way it’s meant to be.
Want to find out more?
- The Mental Health Foundation have a great bank of resources about pets and mental health here.
- MIND, the mental health charity, have a really moving article on how getting a dog helped one person get back on track.
- The Anxiety and Depression Association of America also has a good blog on the subject.
If you prefer the academic literature:
- There is a good review of the theoretical basis of animal assisted therapeutic interventions here.
- The journal BMC Psychiatry conducted a detailed meta-analysis of all the published data available in 2018. They came to the conclusion that “pets provide benefits to those with mental health conditions”.