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National Pet Day: Celebrating the Mental Health Benefits of Pet Ownership

Errolie Sermaine 5th April 2024
National Pet Day

In the UK, pet ownership has a rich history dating back centuries. From loyal canine companions to graceful feline friends, and even more exotic companions like birds, fish and reptiles, pets have long been cherished members of British households. Celebrating National Pet Day on Thursday 11th April 2024, allows us a moment to recognize not just the joy and companionship our furry, feathered, or scaly friends bring, but also the profound impact they can have on our mental wellbeing.  

The bond between humans and animals is a tale as old as time. Historically, pets served various roles, from hunting partners to protectors of homes and livestock. In medieval England, dogs were prized for their loyalty and utility, aiding in hunting expeditions and guarding properties. Cats, too, found their place in society, revered for their prowess in controlling vermin populations in towns and villages. 

Fast forward to the modern era, and the role of pets has evolved significantly. While many still serve practical functions, such as guide dogs for the visually impaired or therapy animals for those with disabilities, pets have also become integral parts of our families, offering unconditional love and support. 

A 2020 study published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research found that pet owners reported lower levels of perceived stress and anxiety compared to non-pet owners. The simple act of interacting with a pet, whether through petting, playing, or cuddling, was associated with reduced cortisol levels, the hormone linked to stress, and increased production of serotonin and dopamine, neurotransmitters responsible for feelings of happiness and relaxation along with oxytocin, the “love hormone” known for promoting bonding and relaxation.  

The simple act of petting a dog or stroking a cat can evoke a sense of calm and tranquillity, providing a welcome respite from the hustle and bustle of daily life. In fact, the rhythmic motion of petting an animal has been likened to meditation, promoting mindfulness and present moment awareness. 

 

Another aspect of pet ownership is the companionship they offer, which has been shown to alleviate feelings of loneliness and isolation, particularly among vulnerable populations such as the elderly or those living alone. A longitudinal study conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan found that pet ownership was associated with a lower risk of social isolation and depression in older adults. The presence of a pet also provided a sense of purpose, encouraging social interaction and engagement with the world around them. Dogs, in particular, are known as social facilitators, encouraging their owners to engage in outdoor activities and interact with others. A leisurely stroll in the park with a canine companion can lead to chance encounters and meaningful connections with fellow dog lovers, fostering a sense of community and belonging, particularly important in today’s increasingly interconnected yet isolated society.  

However, the therapeutic benefits of contact with animals extends beyond mere companionship, with pets playing an integral role in the treatment of mental health conditions such as depression, PTSD, and autism spectrum disorders. For those struggling with such conditions, pets can provide invaluable emotional support. The unwavering loyalty and non-judgmental presence of a pet can offer solace during difficult times, serving as a constant source of comfort and companionship.  

In recent years, the therapeutic benefits of animals have been harnessed in various healthcare settings, giving rise to the field of animal-assisted therapy. From hospitals and nursing homes to schools and rehabilitation centres, trained therapy animals offer support and comfort to individuals undergoing medical treatment or facing emotional challenges. Such animal-assisted therapy programs, where trained therapy animals work alongside mental health professionals, have gained traction for their effectiveness in improving mood and enhancing overall emotional wellbeing.  

In a study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders, researchers found that participation in animal-assisted therapy sessions led to significant reductions in symptoms of depression and anxiety among patients with mood disorders. The presence of therapy animals provided a source of comfort and support, facilitating emotional expression and coping mechanisms in a safe and non-judgmental environment. 

Furthermore, the responsibility of caring for a pet can instil a sense of purpose and routine, particularly beneficial for individuals grappling with mental illness. A study published in BMC Psychiatry found that pet ownership was associated with improved self-esteem, greater feelings of competence, and a stronger sense of identity among individuals experiencing mental ill-health. The daily tasks associated with pet care, such as feeding, grooming, and exercise, provided structure and stability, helping to alleviate feelings of aimlessness and despair. 

So, as we celebrate National Pet Day, it feels right to honour the profound and positive impact that our furry, feathered, and scaly companions have on our mental wellbeing. Whether they’re curled up at our feet or frolicking in the garden, pets can enrich our lives in ways both tangible and intangible. Whether it’s the joy of coming home to a wagging tail, the soothing purr of a contented cat, or the playful antics of a feathered or scaled companion, pets have a remarkable ability to uplift our spirits and brighten our days. They remind us to live in the moment, find joy in the simple things, and cherish the bonds of love and friendship that transcend species boundaries. And if you’re considering adding a furry or scaly friend to your family, know that you’re not just welcoming a pet into your home but a steadfast companion and ally in the journey towards improved mental health and wellbeing. 

 

References 

“Pet ownership and psychological health in a large community sample: Results from the health and retirement study” 

Allen R. McConnell, James A. C. Everett, and Tonya M. P. Odaci 

 Journal of Psychiatric Research, 2020 

 

“Pet Ownership, but Not ACE Inhibitor Therapy, Blunts Home Blood Pressure Responses to Mental Stress” 

Karen G. Kubala, Shih-Yu Lee, and James H. H. M. Ellard 

University of Michigan Institute for Social Research, Survey Research Centre, 2019 

 

“Evaluating the efficacy of animal-assisted therapy on the reduction of BPSD (Behavioral and Psychological Symptoms of Dementia) among residents with dementia in Western Australia” 

Cindy Jones, Katrina Radford, and Jenny Noble 

Journal of Affective Disorders, 2019 

 

“Effects of Dog Ownership and Adolescents’ Self-Esteem: Direct or Indirect Effects?” 

Megan K. Mueller, Carla A. Mazur, and Katherine M. Clemons 

BMC Psychiatry, 2020 

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Author Biography:

Errolie Sermaine is a BACP and NCS Accredited Counsellor and Clinical Supervisor. Since qualifying she has run a successful private practice and worked for a variety of organisations. She is also a fully qualified teacher and trainer with a wealth of experience of designing and delivering a huge a range of courses. Passionate about training counsellors, she has been the Clinical Supervisor for several Professional Diploma in Therapeutic Counselling courses, as well as the Designated Safeguarding Lead and Curriculum Manager for an Outstanding adult education provider.
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Please note that all beliefs, views and opinions expressed within guest writer articles are solely those of the guest writer and do not reflect the beliefs, views and opinions of London School of Counselling, this website or its affiliates.
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