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Inspiring Success on the Road to Recovery

Friday, April 1, 2016

Animals Improve our Mental Health

By Jenise Harmon, MSW, LISW-S

Pnut Brown
More animals are becoming a part of our lives. According to a Harris Poll, more than 3 in 5 American households have pets. That’s 62% of families have one or more dogs, cats, birds, and so on.

The Animal, Human Relationship
Researchers estimate dogs first became domesticated between 18,800 and 32,100 years ago. In the beginning, one can imagine these dogs provided assistance with hunting, protection, and a warning signal to alert humans to danger.
Pet animals have practical uses. The expression “it’s a three dog night” comes from the notion it was so cold one needed three dogs to sleep with to keep warm. Cats hunt mice to protect grain. Goats clear brush, even rats have been trained to detect land mines. But, domesticated animals or pets provide more than practical help, as any pet owner will tell you. 

Ways Pets improve Mental Health
  • Stroking an animal has a calming effect and reduces anxiety. Some studies have shown petting an animal lowers blood pressure.
  • A dog can make you get out of bed to take it on a walk and walking increases endorphins which makes you feel good.
  • Pets give unconditional love. They don’t care if you haven’t showered, have a bad hair day, or if the house is a mess. Asking for little they love a great deal.
  • Caring for something reminds you to care for yourself, knowing they depend on you. Pets insist on being fed and watered, which reminds you to eat and drink.
  • They’re fun to watch, play and engage with. Parrots talk and whistle. Dogs chase and roll and learn tricks. Cats leap on the wall, trying to capture the laser dot.
  • Are you unsure of what to say in a situation? Ask someone about their pets, and tell them about yours. People love to talk about their pets almost as much as their kids, sometimes more.
  • Pets help you make friends. Dog people gather at dog parks. All types of pet lovers volunteer at animal shelters. Pets are a great icebreaker. 
  • Helping animals can increase self-esteem. There are many places that need animal lover volunteers. Rescues, shelters, and wildlife centers can all use help. Many food pantries are in need of food for people’s pets. Giving time and energy will make you feel better about yourself and is something you can look forward to. 
  • Pets help those who are sick, sad, or lonely. All sorts of animals can be certified as therapy animals. Therapy animals go into hospitals, schools, retirement homes, and libraries to help uplift people’s mood, provide a listening ear to help kids read, and be needed distraction to an otherwise monotonous day.
  • Animals make you feel good. A much needed lick on the face, a cat purring on your lap, pets listen without judgement or criticism. 
  • Even if you don’t own an animal, you can reap the benefits of one by visiting a shelter to walk the dogs or hold the cats. You can hang out with a friend who has pets. 

Animals cannot replace medication that’s needed for mental health problems or psychotherapy for significant problems, but they can help in many ways. Opening your home to nonhuman creatures will forever change your life in a myriad of positive, interesting, and wonderful ways.

Jenise Harmon, LISW-S, is a psychotherapist with a private practice. She works with adults, adolescents, couples, and groups. Follow her on twitter; and connect with her on Facebook.