| Peter Cook

The mental (and health) benefits of a companion animal – Part 1

Introduction
It is official: it has been scientifically proven that animals provide great benefits beyond just being our furry friends. Pets can tune in to our behavior and our emotions and react to it.

Pets, especially dogs and cats, can reduce depression, anxiety, and stress. They can ease loneliness or help people feel more secure.

Did you know that:

• People without pets are more likely to suffer from depression
• Blood pressure declines significantly when people with hypertension adopt dogs
• Playing with a dog or a cat calms and relaxes you
• Did you have a heart attack? You will survive longer if you have a pet.
• Pet owners visit their doctor less frequently than those without pets

It doesn’t even have to be a cat or a dog! A fish in an aquarium can also lower pulse rate and help reduce muscle tension. A rabbit, hamster, or even a llama can also be an emotional support animal.

Why does it work?

It is all about mutual affection. We humans need touch. Stroking, touching, and hugging an animal is calming and soothing when you're anxious or depressed. It is not one-sided! Animals are magnificent at returning the affection.

The benefits of a companion animal

In the following section, we list the benefits of a comfort animal for a sick or mentally challenged person. (Of course, it is also true for all healthy people, too!)

(In the paragraph just below the sub-headings, we provide a practical example from real-life reports.)

• A companion animal can provide comfort and alleviate loneliness

‘When Mandy cries, the dog approaches her. He comforts her by lying right next to her. He even licks her tears. Whenever the dog hears her moving, he comes to her side. Mandy’s family cannot always comfort her, so the dog’s role is vital.’

• Symptom distraction

‘When I am having problems with the voices in my head, the birds help me. It helps me in the sense that I can try and concentrate on their chirping. Often the voices fade.’

• A companion animal helps with social interaction.

‘People just stops and talk to my dog all the time! It cheers me up. It helps me sometimes to start a conversation, too. He is quite good.’



• A sense of self-worth and identity

‘John must take care of his companion dog. It facilitated a change in his sense of self. He is no longer seeing himself as ‘someone who can’t be loved,’ but rather as a loving, nurturing protector.’

A pet can also help a person to:

• Get regular exercise
• Add structure and routine to a day and
• Reduce anxiety
• Boost their self-esteem
• Be more motivated
• Have a sense of purpose

It might not be for everyone, though

There can be some negative aspects. A pet costs money, and it can be unruly at times.

Some people cannot manage the animal successfully. Some feel that they can't go out or travel as freely as they did before. They feel guilty about leaving the animal alone.

In the end, a companion animal is a good idea if it works for the ‘patient’ and the animal. But you’ll never know until you try!

Conclusion

The ‘Journal of Evidence-Informed Social Work’ reported in one study that PTSD patients’ symptoms had reduced by more than 80% after just one week of having a companion animal.

So, it is true: Pets provide benefits for those with health- and mental health conditions. Some species connect intensely with their owners and make a considerable contribution to their well-being and how the person manages his/her symptoms.

We’ve even heard of situations where suicide has been prevented because of loyalty to an emotional support animal. It might be a good option for you or a loved one, too.

Next week we’ll look at how to go about getting a companion animal for yourself or someone dear to you.


Resources
https://www.helpguide.org/articles/mental-health/mood-boosting-power-of-dogs.htm
https://www.psychologytoday.com/za/blog/animal-emotions/201802/companion-animals-help-people-mental-health-problems


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