The Four-legged Therapist: Pets and Emotional Well-Being

While mental health therapy can provide the skills needed to cope with the ups and downs of life, the unconditional love of an animal can also help emotionally sustain us though the toughest times. Those who have pets know the feeling you get when a purring cat curls up in your lap or when a dog shakes his entire body to greet you when you walk through the door. Scientists are now validating what pet owners already know: having a pet improves ones well-being.

Introduction

Scientists and pet owners alike have long been intrigued by the bond humans have with animals. A 2019 study estimates that approximately 68% of Americans own animals – we are definitely a pet-loving nation. Globally 77% …. Clearly, pets hold a place of honor on many families.

During troubled times, our pets can be our best companions as they can provide unconditional love and support. Our animals can reassure us when we are feeling unwell and anxious. If we live alone, the presence of a pet can make us feel more safe and secure. Feeding chickens or grooming a horse can give us a sense of purpose, and help us to be mindful of the present.

The gifted American poetess, Emily Dickinson, wrote her most enduring work while enjoying the companionship of Carlo, a Newfoundland dog given to her by her father. The gentle giant remained in Emily’s care for fifteen of the most introspective years of her life. An emotionally absent mother left Emily feeling alone and unloved. Little did one of literature’s most talented writers realize that not only did owning a pet provide kinship, it was also the balm needed to heal Emily’s emotional wounds, enabling her to eloquently release her pain and experience joy.

Increasingly, research is being done to investigate just how beneficial these extraordinary relationships with our pets can be, especially the emotional benefits and how they may impact our health. Whether we are a pet owner or not, any of us can experience the comfort an animal may bring.

The Healing Benefits of Animals

In 2019, researchers from Washington State University recruited students to participate in a study of how physically interacting with cats and dogs may impact cortisol levels. The students were divided into two groups: one group actually petted the animals for 10 minutes while the other groups just watched the animals. The group that was able to participate hands-on had significantly lower levels of cortisol than the group who did not. The researchers surmised that an increase in oxytocin, which can stimulate feelings of happiness, may have been responsible for lowering students cortisol levels, however, they also reasoned that “perceptual and psychological mechanisms are involved in the stress-relieving effects…as well.”

Other ways that animals may help us with our emotional health include:

  • Relieving loneliness: Interacting with animals throughout the day, be it on the farm or in the home, may make us feel less isolated and more needed. Having to be responsible for another’s health and well-being can give us a sense of purpose. A 2013 study of individuals living in a nursing home showed that individuals who participated in animal assisted therapy (AAT) experienced less loneliness and increased social behavior. The participants “enjoyed spending time with the dogs and considered taking care of the dogs and the program itself significant for the enhancement of the quality of life in the institution.”

A 2010 study by Jennifer P. Wisdom, Ph.D. and other researchers revealed that participants who struggled with mental health issues and who owned anything from “cats and dogs, to birds, chinchillas, chickens, horses, and guinea pigs” felt that their pets helped them cope with their emotional struggles. Participants agreed that they felt empathy from their pets and that their pets understood them, especially those participants who felt socially isolated. These individuals also reported feeling a greater sense of empowerment and self-efficacy as a result.

  • Managing anxiety and stress: Many who own pets turn to them first for relief after a stressful day – their loving nature and uncanny intuition of knowing just what we need emotionally makes them an endearing member of our support systems. Even individuals who may not consider themselves animal lovers can experience stress and anxiety relief. In 2003, researchers studied the effects of petting an animal has on anxiety and stress levels of people with different attitudes towards animals and that both groups showed a reduction in anxiety. It is interesting to point out it did not matter what kind of animal was introduced into the study – the effects held true for petting dogs and cats as it did for hard-shelled creatures such as turtles.
  • Managing depression: Individuals who suffer from mental health and emotional issues may also suffer from low self-esteem and self-worth, may feel hopeless and overwhelmed with life, and may feel as though they do not have a voice to advocate for themselves. These feelings can undoubtedly lead to depression. Research has shown that people feel that their pets understand their challenges with depression and they provide empathy and support. Many comment that their relationships with their pets are “therapeutic.” Wisdom states “successfully fulfilling one’s responsibilities enhances feelings of self-worth.” One man who struggled from depression said of his little dog, “she’s willful and demanding, and takes a lot of attention, and I think she’s been therapeutic for me.”
  • Providing structure: When we feel anxious or stressed, we often feel like things are out of control. Providing structure and routine for an animal can in turn provide us with the same, which is calming. 

Having a pet can also help us build social capital, which can help emotionally. Individuals who move to a new city where they do not know anyone or individuals who suffer from social anxiety may find their pet is the gateway to human companionship. Friendships may develop or, in the least, interesting conversation, which may help individuals feel connected or make it easier for them to engage socially.

What Animals Can Teach Us about Humanity and Life

Author and veterinarian James Herriot wrote, “If having a soul means being able to feel love and loyalty and gratitude, then animals are better off than a lot of humans.” Humans, however, can learn to be better humans though caring for animals. In her article, “Human-Animal Bonds II: The Role of Pets in Family Systems and Family Therapy,” Froma Walsh, Ph.D. writes how pets can provide socialization and educational opportunities for the children. One mother noted that the family pet “[brought] out the best in the kids in responsibility, kindness, affection, first-aid, and concern for other living things.”

Animals also help build resiliency in children who are experiencing tumultuous change such as divorce and moving or switching schools. A pet can provide comfort, support and security, which enables children to adapt more quickly. A mother noted that after a divorce, her daughter was having a hard time adjusting so both parents agreed that her pet dog could accompany her when she visited her father on weekends. The security of having her dog with her helped the little girl acclimate to the new living situation.

Virtual Pets and Social Media

Some of us may not be able to have pets for various reasons. We may be too ill and unable to adequately care for an animal, especially if our health condition does not allow it. We might not have the living space – a large dog may not fare well in a top-floor studio apartment. We may be allergic and suffer severely if in contact with animal dander. Whatever the case may be, if living with a pet is not possible, there are virtual solutions that can be helpful.

Social media has exploded in the last decade, and with it has come a bounty of virtual experiences, from an endless supply of animal YouTube videos to following the “Cats of Instagram,” and hash tags such as “#dogs” or “#pet.” If you love animals, chances are you already have been caught up watching the antics of someone else’s pet on the Internet … and enjoyed a smile or laugh.  Though the research on this may seem unnecessary, there are studies that show how social media and virtual pets significantly improve our mood.

In Conclusion

While we provide loving homes and care to our four-legged and two-winged friends, they provide us with affection, trust, purpose and a sense of well-being that can be a significant part of our emotional good health.  It is true what they say, “the best therapist often has fur and four legs.”

 

References
Adams, M. (1999). Emily Dickinson had a dog: An interpretation of the human-dog bond. Anthrozoös, 12(3), 132-141. doi:10.2752/089279399787000192
Gall Myrick, J. (2015). Emotion regulation, procrastination, and watching cat videos online: Who watches internet cats, why, and to what effect? Computers in Human Behavior, 52(2015), 168-176. doi: 10.1016/j.chb.2015.06.001.
James Herriot quotes. (2020). GoodReads. Retrieved April 4, 2020 from goodreads.com/author/quotes/18062.James_Herriot
Miller, J. (2020, April 2). Mood-boosting power of pets. NBC News. https://www.nbcnews.com/think/opinion/during-coronavirus-lockdowns-pets-are-helping-many-us-keep-it-ncna1174991
Pendry, P., & Vandagriff, J. (2019). Animal visitation program (AVP) reduces cortisol levels of university students: A randomized controlled trial. AERA Open, 5(2), 1-12. doi: 10.1177/233285841982592. Retrieved April 4, 2020 from https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/2332858419852592
Pet industry market size & ownership statistics. (2020). American Pet Products Association. Retrieved April 4, 2020 from https://www.americanpetproducts.org/press_industrytrends.asp
Powell, L., Edwards, K., McGreevy, P., Bauman, A., Podberscek, A., Neilly, B., Sherrington, C., & Starnatakis. (2019). Companion dog acquisition and mental well-being: A community-based three-arm controlled study. BMC Public Health, 19(2019), 1-10. doi: 10.1186/s12889-019-7770-5. Retrieved from: https://bmcpublichealth.biomedcentral.com/track/pdf/10.1186/s12889-019-7770-5
Walsh, F. (2009). Human-animal bonds II: The role of pets in family systems and family therapy. Family Process, 48(4), 481-499. Retrieved April 4, 2020 from http://ift-malta.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/The-Role-of-Pets-in-Family-Systems-and-Family-Therapy.pdf
Wells, D. (2009). The effects of animals on human health and well-being. Journal of Social Issues, 65(3), 523-543. Retrieved April 4, 2020 from
http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.988.727&rep=rep1&type=pdf
Wisdom, J., Saedi, G., & Green, C. (2009). Another breed of “service” animals: STARS study findings about pet ownership and recovery from serious mental illness. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 79(3), 430-436. doi: 10.1037/a0016812. Retrieved April 4, 2020 from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2854030/pdf/nihms-185682.pdf
Vrbanac, Z., Zecevic, I., Ljubic, M., Belic, M., Stanin, D., Bottegaro, N., Jurkic, G., Skrlin, B., Bedrica, L., & Zubcic, D. (2013). Animal assisted therapy and perception of loneliness in geriatric nursing home residents. Collegium Ahtropologicum, 37(3), 973-976. Retrieved April 4, 2020 from https://hrcak.srce.hr/118306

 

Author: Liz Heintz

Liz Heintz is a technical and creative writer who received her BA in Communications, Advocacy, and Relational Communications from Marylhurst University in Lake Oswego, Oregon. She most recently worked for several years in the healthcare industry. A native of San Francisco, California, Liz now calls the beautiful Pacific Northwest home.

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