Those of us with pet companions often feel a sense of comfort and happiness in the company of our furry, feathered, or finned family members. There’s plenty of research that shows that our pets really do have a positive and healing impact on our lives and can be beneficial in improving our mood and functioning.
Human/Pet Connection: Past & Present
Pets and humans have been connected since before recorded history, as is evidenced by cave paintings from around the world. Humans have been keeping pets and building working relationships with animals for well over 10,000 years. The first documented use of animals therapeutically was in ninth-century Belgium, when people with disabilities were asked to care for farm animals. Animals were also used in the 1700s at the York Retreat in England, a progressive mental hospital for its time.
Even health care pioneers such as Florence Nightingale and Sigmund Freud recommended animal companionship especially for the infirm. In the 1700s and 1800s both noted how pets had a calming effect on people. Freud also thought that dogs had the ability to read people’s emotional states and were great judges of character.
In the last decade, multiple studies have shown that specially trained therapy dogs significantly reduced anxiety and stress in both children and adults in hospitals, even facilitating their recovery from other ailments. Additionally, the use of therapy dogs in nursing homes and memory care settings has significantly reduced agitation of patients with dementia. Prisoners have exhibited long-term behavioral changes after interacting with pets.
What Our Pets Do for Us
For most people, the presence of a loving and friendly pet prompts the body to release serotonin, prolactin, and oxytocin. These hormones generate a relaxation and stress-reducing response. This hormone release can lower symptoms of depression and sadness, helping to support good mental health. Moreover, owners of pets:
- Are less likely to suffer depression
- Have lower blood pressure during stressful situations
- Display reduced levels of triglyceride and cholesterol which are associated with heart disease
- Survive longer after having a heart attack
- Make 30% fewer visits to the doctor after the age of 65
- Live longer
While we associate many of the benefits of pet companionship with dogs and cats, other animals have also been a beneficial support to their pet guardians including ferrets, birds, horses, and fish.
Emotional Support Animals (ESAs)
Emotional Support Animals are designated for people in need of a constant, comforting presence in the face of uncomfortable symptoms from anxiety, depression, autism, bipolar disorder, PTSD, and other behavioral health issues. In order for a pet to be an appropriate support animal, pet guardians need to obtain an emotional support animal letter by speaking with a licensed mental health professional. This letter confirms the need for the support animal and states that person is under the care of a licensed professional who has prescribed an emotional support animal because the animal helps alleviate symptoms and provides therapeutic benefits.
Before adding an emotional support pet to your life and family, make sure that you are ready to make a long-term commitment to the health and safety of a pet companion. There are some important factors to consider:
- Financial burden
- The length of life for pets
- Potential housing issues
- Implications of unruly pet behavior
With that being said, the benefits far outweigh any burden. Caring for and interacting with a pet offers comfort, affection, joy, and company – all of which improve our mental health and well-being.
Benefits of Animal Assisted Therapy (innerbody.com)
Chandler , C. K., & Otting , T. L. (2018). Animal -Assisted Interventions and Mental Health (1st ed.). Routledge.
Compitus , K. (2021). The Human -Animal Bond in Clinical Social Work Practice (1st ed.). Springer.
Sutton, J 2023, Pets & Wellbeing: 15 Benefits of Emotional Support Animals, https://positivepsychology.com/pets-mental-health/
Blog post written by Harry Livesay, LCSW-S
Lone Star Circle of Care