Research has confirmed the positive effects of having a pet, and health professionals recognize the value of treating physical and mental conditions. People experiencing mental health problems say that caring for animals and the unconditional love that they receive back changes their lives, improves their quality of life, and their mental well-being increases exponentially.
What is an Emotional Support Pet?
Emotional support animals are just what they sound like. They are animals meant to provide emotional support to those with emotional disabilities or mental illness. Obviously, anyone can benefit from getting emotional support from their pet, but for those who have emotional disabilities or mental illness, it is different. The stability, safety, and comfort an animal provides can make an incredibly positive impact on someone’s mental health.
Overall Health Benefits of Pet Ownership
Pet ownership is great for psychological and physical health benefits. The owners of pets suffer less depression, have lower blood pressure during times of stress, show lower levels of cholesterol and triglycerides, live longer after a heart attack, and make fewer visits to the doctor after the age of 65. Generally, if you play with your pet, it promotes relaxation and calm by increasing levels of dopamine and serotonin.
Human Touch/Socialization/Exercise with Pets
Pets provide the basic human need for touch and provide companionship. Contact is important for people who do not have mutual affection in their lives or for lonely people. Pets improve the quality and quantity of socialization by providing a place for people to interact when they are out on their walks.
Exercise that improves mental and physical well-being is encouraged by dogs. Including those older adults with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, they find more joy and meaning in life, stay connected and get energy through pet ownership.
Having to exercise, feed, and give your dog attention can bring structure to your day. Immediate relief from anxiety and stress can come from stroking and hugging an animal.
Pet Ownership and Benefits to Children
Children learn empathy, compassion, and emotional intelligence by having pets. This interaction is beneficial for children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and autism. Providing children with the opportunity to get engaged in a caring activity like brushing, feeding, or stroking the pet is encouraged and is often associated with fewer negative symptoms.
Emotional Support Animals in Mental Health Settings
As years progress, emotional support animals are being used in more mental health settings. They provide comfort and company, life skills, social interaction, belonging and social skills, life balance, structure, passionate caring, fun and enjoyment, and a sense of achievement. Caring for animals develops social skills and encourages social interaction, while interacting with the animal offers company and comfort. All these things improve mental health and well-being.
Research has confirmed the value of animals and many improvements in patients’ lives. Animals provide non-judgmental social support through unconditional love. A social connection and belonging are an especially important part of mental health and well-being. Animal interaction can act as a vehicle through which social connection may be enhanced or increased.
Improving Our Mental Well-Being
Mental illnesses, like depression, are sometimes characterized by inactivity and lack of interest. Over the years, several studies have shown people caring for animals report an increase in their sense of engagement. Our relationships with animals have benefited our mental well-being. Pets provide us with a different kind of emotional support because of their keen intuition, especially in a time of crisis and when people are feeling they are most isolated and alone.
Research shows that people confide in their pets when they cannot do so with other people. They feel safe to open up without being judged. Pets are helpful in a practical sense by disrupting and distracting their owner’s focus on potential symptoms or upsetting experiences like hearing voices, panic attacks, anxiety and suicidal thoughts.
Direct vs. Indirect Benefits
There are different ways of looking at the connection between pet ownership and health benefits. While there is not a direct association, there are factors that impact a decision to own a pet that links to the health benefits and the owner. Social interaction with other humans is improved with pets and this reduces social isolation and loneliness which indirectly improves well-being. Directly, the pet-human relationship provides emotional support that also affects well-being.
Most likely a combination of the above is the value behind pet ownership. We should remember that good health is more than not being sick and includes having your basic psychological needs met and having a good quality of life. You do not necessarily need to own an animal to receive great mental health benefits.
The True Value of Emotional Support Pets
Humans have been building relationships with pets for over ten thousand years. It is not a surprise that many pets, especially dogs, understand words and recognize our tone, gestures, and body language. Having a non-human that needs us and can tell our feelings without expecting something or judging us is unbelievably valuable!