Pet Therapy and Mental Health

Written by: Alison Laurie, Senior Consultant, Crown Vets Inverness

Life is not always a happy time for everyone... when we feel low and depressed our pets can be there to help.  Our pets can actually make us feel physically and mentally healthier , the physical activity involved in exercising our pet dogs will in turn improve our general physical and cardiovascular health and just the very presence of our pets can lift  our spirits and so help us be less anxious and relax.  Animals accept us all just as we are ,they never judge and they always give us love and attention unconditionally ,so people can wholeheartedly interact with them safe in the knowledge that there is no hidden agenda.

Some people find it very difficult to open up and ever trust another human being due to their own previous personal circumstances , but they can however rediscover a new found trust with a pet.  Pet ownership also enhances social interaction and general social skills and this can improve our self esteem. Research has shown that Teenagers who have pets in their household have a more positive outlook on life and report less loneliness , boredom and depression. Frequently researched and reported benefits from pet therapy situations include: a noted reduction in human stress, a boost in general self-esteem, improved mood, and better communication skills in those involved.

Pets can make a real difference to human mental health improving our emotional well being and our trust in general. The act of gently stroking a pet is believed to cause the release of natural endorphins (" feel-good " neurotransmitters) which can have an extremely positive impact in people dealing with any depressive disorders. More detailed and developed interventions are often based on the premise that by focusing on the pet animal and its daily needs, the person's attention is drawn away from their own personal problems and concerns and that having a pet to care for can assist in distracting them from their own problems and from the stresses of daily life. Pet owners also have an opportunity to develop their nurturing skills and naturally develop a sense of empathy with an animal and can from this develop a new healthier sense of personal worth and self esteem within themselves.

Pet therapy and dementia

Pets As Therapy "PAT" Dogs and other pet animals have taken part in visiting programs to Care Homes for elderly people for many years. Interaction with visiting pets may lift the spirits and also focus and improve social behaviours in elderly people with dementia within a care home situation and in the sheltered home care community.  

Those elderly residents involved with these pet visiting programs have all demonstrated improved verbal communication and a greater attentiveness during these scheduled pet visits.

Research has also reported that dementia patients who interact with visiting pets exhibited fewer symptoms of “sundown syndrome” as a result of an animal-therapy programs within care homes ..."Sundown syndrome" is a distressing condition particularly associated with dementia which happens in the early evening period and involves behaviours such as extreme agitation ,restlessness, confusion, wandering, and severe distress and anxiety , particularly at night. Having therapy dogs present ,particularly during the early evening period, appeared to distract these patients and also seemed to relax them and settle them down before the long night ahead.

So our beloved pets can give us all so much back and help us in so many different ways . In the simple act of caring for them day to day we can in turn benefit and when used as pet therapy dogs others then can also benefit from their unconditional love and attention.