Science Says Your Pet Is Good for Your Mental Health. Having a pet in America is a plum gig. Pets are incredibly well loved: according to a 2015 Harris poll, 95% of owners think of their animal as a member of the family. About half buy them birthday presents.
And they’re a two-way street. People who have pets tend to have lower blood pressure, heart rate, and heart disease risk than those who don’t have pets. Those health boons may come from the extra exercise that playing and walking require, and the stress relief of having a steady best friend on hand. Scientists are now digging up evidence that animals can also help improve mental health, even for people with challenging disorders.
Though the studies are small, the benefits are impressive enough that clinical settings are opening their doors to animal-assisted interventions–pet therapy, in other words–used alongside conventional medicine.
“It used to be one of the great no-no’s to think of an animal in a hospital,” says Alan Beck, director of the Center for the Human-Animal Bond at Purdue University–a fear which is starting to be overcome by widespread research showing how beneficial it can be for patients. “Now, I don’t know of any major children’s hospital that doesn’t have at least some kind of animal
In a study, stressed-out adults were told to pet a bunny, turtle or toy. The toys had no effect. But stroking a living creature relieved anxiety and was effective regardless of whether the person said they liked animals.
One common practice that seems to have a psychological benefit is helping animals. In a 2016 study published in the journal Gerontology, elderly people who were given five crickets in a cage became less depressed after eight weeks than a control group. The act of caring for living beings seem to be where the difference comes in.
The most studied therapy animal is the horse, and it has enjoyed particular use since the 1860s. For instance, riding horses is a form of interaction that reportedly reduces PTSD symptoms in children and adolescents.
Many studies have shown that animals can take our attention captive. It’s been proven that having a fish tank in your living room can improve health outcomes, including everything from nutrition and weight to attention span. For example, research has shown that occupants of an Alzheimer’s-disease facility who had fish tanks with colorful fish ate more and were less prone to pacing. They also had an improved attention span and were better rested than those without any type of pet.
Providing sight to visually impaired people is the focus of an Alzheimer’s-disease care facility. By providing stimulation by adding colorful fish tanks with talking fish, people ate and received better nutrition. They were less prone to mentally and physically pacing. They were also more attentive and less lethargic overall.
Teaching children to read can relieve their anxiety symptoms, which might be caused by issues with speaking. Research suggests that when these kids are given the chance to read aloud to a trained dog and handler, they experience less anxiety.
Can kids with reading difficulties benefit from reading aloud to a trained dog and handler? Some research suggests that this practice can improve their attitudes and skills. “Their skills improve, but also their attitudes change,” says Lisa Freeman, director of the Tufts Institute for Human-Animal Interaction.
Animal-assisted interventions are a great way to help children with autism. Maggie O’Haire from Purdue found that when augmented by a live guinea pig, these children showed improvements in socialization, mood, and stress.
Having a guinea pig in the classroom has been proven to help children socialize and minimize their stress levels. With more ups, there are fewer downs.