Mental Health and Pets

Author: Alison Laurie-Chalmers, Senior Consultant, Crown Vets Inverness

It has been proven that the presence of a dog can help us with mental health problems such as stress, anxiety and depression. Dogs are frequently introduced into therapy sessions to assist here, as they do have a natural calming influence. 

Interaction with dogs has long been proven to ease anxieties. Any interaction with dogs such as patting, stroking, grooming and hugs all boost our mood and provide an instant comfort to us in moments of distress. This close bond and interaction does over time help to rebuild any poor self-esteem. The act of gently stroking a pet gives us comfort and lifts our spirits and has been proven to reduce blood pressure and stress levels. This feeling of comfort triggers the release of endorphins, feel-good neurotransmitters, which give a calming effect and boost levels of serotonin, a chemical linked with our feelings of happiness and well-being.

Walking with our pet dog is a rewarding way for us to keep fit and this activity is also great for our mental health. Also our dogs are great "ice breakers" when embarking on any conversation with other pet owners in parks, pet stores or at training events. So our pets can also be helpful in promoting our own social interaction by breaking through any emotional barriers. People under emotional stress for whatever reason don't feel “judged” or criticised by a dog, who thankfully is able to display a lovely, natural unconditional acceptance with no hidden agendas and so the owner can feel more confident and more able to confront their own mental health issues.

So, our pet dogs can ease stressful situations and they also boost our self-esteem and build confidence. When we are feeling anxious our pets can help us by providing an unconditional love and attention. Also by caring for a pet we are directing our attention towards another living thing and our focus is therefore drawn away from our own personal anxieties for a while. Also caring for a pet can add a healthy structure to your day as they all require a regular feeding and exercise schedule. So having a consistent set routine keeps your pet settled and calm and this can work for ourselves too.

Dog owners are less likely to suffer from depression than those without. A recent Dogs Trust survey found that 95% of dog owners in Britain believe that interacting with their dog made them happier, with 89% saying they talk to their dog when no one else is around.

Universities worldwide are turning to using therapy dogs to relieve their students' pre-exam nerves and first-year stress and homesickness. Also the presence of a visiting animal in a hospital or care-home environment helps the patients feel more relaxed.

So, our much-loved, loyal pets can give ourselves and others so much back in this ever changing, stressful world that we live in.