By Brandy Browne
Animals have been touted as a remedy for depression and anxiety for decades. Why, exactly, is a doctor or mental health specialist likely to suggest a pet as part of your treatment plan? Animals are great distractions from stress and teach many social skills that are able to be transferred over into relationships with peers of the human variety. Let’s find out more…
- Studies show that simply petting an animal reduces blood pressure and promotes healthy levels of cortisol within our bodies.
Maybe you have had a stressful day at work. Your technology was glitchy, clients were impatient, or your tasks were merely extra demanding today. By the time you walk through the door, your mood is anything but calm and relaxed. You toss your bag by your bed, and you go plop down in your favorite chair, sour and sullen at the world. The children are playing around you, and the mere sound of their squeals is grating on your nerves. This is too much, you think. Then, the family dog comes and lays his head on your leg, nudging your hand. You sigh and reluctantly start stroking his head. Over the next few minutes, he pushes soft kisses against your hand and stares at you with those deep, soulful eyes. Pretty soon, your breathing is even, and you feel regulated again. You are now able to carry about your evening business, and your children do not have to feel the brunt of your stressful day.
- Pets promote higher self esteem.
This has been studied in children and older populations as well. Often times, our elderly struggle with a lack of purpose in their life and intense feelings of loneliness. As their child rearing days are over, and their own children are busy with their families, they can really struggle with feelings of no longer being needed. Caring for an animal increases their self esteem and gives them a newfound sense of purpose. Someone is counting on them for care, and as they meet the needs of their pet, their self esteem increases.
- Children that own pets often have greater social skills.
Pets provide an opportunity to practice social skills in a safe way. For children, especially, those skills transfer over to the play that they engage in for same age peers. For example, John plays fetch with his dog after school. A simple game of fetch gives John an opportunity to practice taking turns. If he takes over and refuses to give the ball back to his puppy, the puppy loses interest and wanders off. If he continues to toss the ball though, he is rewarded with more play time with his pup. The same skill can be transferred over to his play with peers. If he is controlling and refuses to take turns, his peers will likely not want to continue to engage in play with him. If he takes turns and is a team player, he will be rewarded with greater social interaction with others.
- Pets develop empathy and the ability to read body language cues in others.
Often times, people that have endured trauma of some sort have learned to isolate themselves and lack empathy as a result. They could not depend upon others to protect them from harm, and they have not been exposed to loving, attentive relationships in order to learn how to read cues from others with accuracy. Animals are fantastic teachers for this skill. They communicate very openly through body language with no hidden meanings(Loar & Coleman, 2004, p 70). A wagging tale and bright eyes from your pup indicates he or she is happy to see you. Teeth bared and hair standing on end in a cat means back off or you may get scratched. All ages can take the knowledge applied from reading cues from their animal into their relationships with peers. A set jaw and clenched fists indicates anger. Tears or looking down at the ground may indicate sadness, or at least discomfort with the situation. Pets help us to develop the critical skill of empathy.
Animals require commitment and are certainly not for everyone. However, if you are willing to devote the time and energy to caring for your animal, your family will reap the mental health benefits as well!
Loar, L. & Coleman, L. (2004). Teaching empathy: Animal-assisted therapy programs for children and families exposed to violence. Latham Foundation Publications.