Paws and Claws Deserve Some Applause: Pets and Mental Health

Earlier this month, a UK meta-analysis of existing academic research concluded that pets provide benefits to those with mental health conditions. Led by the University of Liverpool’s Dr. Helen Louise Brooks, the analysis reviewed 17 separate studies, which in total included data from 1727 pet owners. The studies covered a gamut of pets, including dogs, cats, birds, horses and more.

Among the psychological benefits provided by pets, Brooks’ review pointed to studies that evidenced the significant benefits of canine companionship for military veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Physical activity and exercise, a strong mental health management tool, was also correlated with dog ownership, leading to better quality of life outcomes and increased social interactions – important things to keep in mind, next time you feel like skipping out on walking Spot.

As the meta-analysis notes, despite the identified benefits of pets, they’re often overlooked as effective tools or seen as “additional work” by health professionals. Brooks’ calls for a “cultural change” that allows pets to be considered and included as part of the support systems provided through formal service provision.

While Brooks’ recent study is an important confirmation of the healing power of pets, a growing trend recognizing the psychological benefit of animals has been popping up on campuses for years now.
Across universities and colleges in the United States and Canada, “puppy rooms” have been organized to give students a respite from studies and the opportunity to destress in a positive, furry environment.

Students are also increasingly seeking to bring their own pets to school with them to serve as “emotional support animals”. A 2016 article from the American Bar Association identified that the rise in mental illness on campuses is also correlated to the rise in emotional support animals by students –creating at tricky legal and housing landscape for schools and students to navigate. One interesting way to address, creating designated “pet” floors, was raised in a 2015 University of California, Berkley article.

Ultimately, while this study is further proof of the power of pets, it seems that the secret has been out for quite some time: approximately 63% of households in the United States have a companion animal. Dr. Maggie O’Haire, Assistant Professor of human-animal interaction at Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine in West Lafayette, also notes that outside of our homes and campuses, the presence of animals in our workplaces can also help reduce stress.

Dr. O’Haire is also currently managing a study looking into the health, emotional and social quality of individuals and families living with service dogs versus those on the waitlist to receive a service dog. If you’ve read the rest of this blogpost, the results so far shouldn’t come as a surprise: individuals and their families that already had a service dog showed better social and emotional functioning compared to those without.

And for all those reading along that have felt that this post was all bark and not enough meow, the UK’s Mental Health Foundation 2011 study found that of 600 people surveyed, 87% of cat owners felt their felines had a positive impact on their wellbeing and 76% reporting that they helped them cope better with everyday life.

There’s no doubt that pets can help us achieve mentally healthier lives. For some people, their pets’ unconditional love and companionship is the reason that they continue to be, and work to be, happy. While the old adage, “dogs are a man’s best friend” still rings true today, the growing evidence shows that it’s not limited to canines: wings, scales, claws and fins, whether 2 or 4 or 8 or no legs at all, pets can be a profoundly powerful tool for helping us realize our best selves – for us, and for them.

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