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Why pets have a positive impact on mental health

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Published Wednesday 26 February 2020
  • Disability and Mental Health

We’ve all had those rough days; when you’re flopped out on a train seat on the way home after another massively taxing day at work. Thankfully, tomorrow is Friday and you’ve got two gloriously lazy days to look forward to. Then your mobile rings. It’s your boss. You have to work the weekend.  

You stumble in the door at home, shoulders slumped, this dire news still sinking in. And that’s when something big and furry bounds up and almost bowls you over with the sheer glee of its welcome.  

In seconds you’re smiling and feeling better.  

That’s the dog factor. 

And it doesn’t even have to be a big, furry dog licking your head off. It could just as easily be tiny and short-haired and licking your feet while yapping deliriously; the emotion, love and loyalty are exactly the same.  

For that matter, it could be a cat, a hamster or a goat. It’s called unconditional love.  

Okay, the jury’s out on how unconditional the love of a hamster or goat is and some of us still have reservations about cats. So for the purposes of this article, we’ll mainly focus on one eternally loyal animal.  

The dog.  

 Dogs rule when it comes to love and in life-changing ways.  

Quite simply, dogs (and some cats) are good for mental health.  

So let’s start with a few basic facts.  

The researched positives about pets and mental heath 

While this study by the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology used the term ‘Pet Owners’ to define the subject of their findings, it’s safe to say goldfish didn’t figure highly in any species breakdown.  

That said, their research found ‘pet owners’ to exhibit a range of important emotional benefits compared to people who didn’t have pets. More specifically, they found that, on average, pet owners had higher self-esteem and were more social and outgoing. As a result, they were less lonely, less fearful and had healthier relationships.  

They were also more active because dogs need walking. Dogs create a necessity to get out of the house and pound the pavements in a positive way. They get us throwing balls in parks and enjoying the pure and simple joy of that ball being returned to our feet with undisguised enthusiasm.  

Most importantly, dogs are always there when we need a hug. Always! That’s the unconditional love that can turn the tables from sadness to smiles.  

Why?  

Meet oxytocin – the cuddle chemical 

Think about that feeling you get when you cuddle your dog. You feel warm, relaxed and a genuine sense of love.  

Even the briefest interaction with our furry friend can do this. How? Because when we get snuggly with a dog, our brain releases a chemical called oxytocin, otherwise known as the cuddle chemical.  

What does this chemical do? It makes us feel more relaxed, trusting and empathetic. As a result we feel less stressed and anxious.  

That’s the magic of dogs.  

Dogs can reduce depression 

Again, it’s the oxytocin at work. But it’s also the need to get out and exercise our dog. Obviously if we’re depressed, we don’t feel like doing anything. However, if there’s a dog looking pleadingly at us with a leash in his mouth, obligation will kick in.  

For people suffering from depression, caring for a dog – or any pet for that matter – creates a real sense of purpose. Another living thing is relying on them for love and support, not to mention food and a safe home. In return, there is a feeling of being valued.  

Dogs help us meet people 

There’s something about walking a dog that leads to unexpected chats with strangers. Often they’re also walking a dog and while the two canines check each other out, we start up a conversation.  

It all helps, particularly if we’re lonely or socially withdrawn. These chance encounters force us out of our shell and can slowly build confidence.  

Dogs children with ADHD 

Actually, any pet requiring care and attention can have a positive impact on children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Children with ADHD often have difficulty concentrating, and can be impulsive and overactive.  

Thankfully, a therapy dog can help; or a therapy pet for that matter. The key is to hand as much pet care responsibility to the child as possible – feeding, walking and bathing being the main ones. Slowly but surely, an ADHD child will learn important skills.  

They’re responsible for a daily schedule of duties to ensure their pet’s well-being and that calls for planning and time management.  

Pets – well dogs anyway - need exercise and there’s no better way for an individual with ADHD to burn off some of that energy overload than charging around a park with a lively dog.  

Dogs help children with autism 

Children with autism can have problems feeling or expressing emotions; they simply don’t sense things the same.  

The good news is that autistic children have been found to respond extremely well to dogs and horses. It’s all about sensations; the feel of the fur or hair and the sounds these animals make. Well, that’s the start anyway.  

Studies show that prolonged interaction with animals can help autistic children to connect better socially.  

Pets reduce loneliness 

A cat or dog makes a wonderful companion for anyone living alone, especially later in life. A solitary existence can play havoc with motivation and routine. Not so if there’s an animal to feed and tend to.  

Pets don’t just offer uncomplaining company; they bring fresh, much needed responsibility and purpose.  

Finally… 

The case for cats 

Cats get a lot of bad press, but most of that is from dog owners who view cats as a bit on the selfish and aloof side, not to mention their innate desire to torture birds and mice.  

All of this is true, but cats do have their good points and can make excellent companions if the concept of a needier, high maintenance dog puts you off.  

And let’s face it, cats purr; one of the most relaxing sounds imaginable if your moggy is snuggled up next you on the couch. 

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