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It’s widely accepted that animals boost our mental health. So much so that airports now employ them to wander the terminals, soothing stressed passengers. For those of us who aren’t flying anytime soon, the American Psychological Association says that, when compared to people without animals, “pet owners had greater self-esteem, were more physically fit, tended to be less lonely, were more conscientious, were more extraverted, tended to be less fearful and tended to be less preoccupied than non-owners.” That’s a lot of benefit for simply opening your home to an animal.
But to what extent do pets help those facing mental health challenges? The answers might surprise you.
Pets Provide Support
McLean Southeast, an inpatient mental facility in Middleborough, Mass., takes pets into account when assessing a patient’s support system. According to Mark Longsjo, the institution’s program director, “We have so many patients come through, and we always ask them about their support system. Sometimes its family members, sometimes its friends, but it’s very common to hear about pets.” One patient explained why animals are such a positive source of support, “[Pets] don’t look at the scars on your arms. They don’t question where you’ve been.”
Pets Prevent Suicide
Western Michigan University’s Suicide Prevention Program lists pets as a protective factor against suicide. Many of the patients in the McLean Southeast facility have also reported that their pets have kept them from following through on thoughts of suicide, knowing that their animal depends on them.
Pets Keep Us Connected To Daily Life
Helen Brooks, a mental health researcher at University of Manchester in the United Kingdom, points out that “The routine these pets provide is really important for people. Getting up in the morning to feed them and groom them and walk them, giving them structure and a sense of purpose that they won’t otherwise have.” Your companion animal trusts you implicitly to care for his every need. In return, you regain the self-confidence that you can not only care for yourself, but for another.
Pets Can Initiate Social Interaction
Having or choosing a pet that requires regular time outdoors can help you connect socially with others, which is important for those who feel isolated due to depression, mental illness, or addiction recovery. According to one patient, “That surprised me, you know, the amount of people that stop and talk to him, and that, yeah, it cheers me up with him. I haven’t got much in my life, but he’s quite good.”
Pets Benefit Those With Autism
In a study of patients at MU Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders, Gretchen Carlisle, a researcher at the Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction (ReCHAI) in the MU College of Veterinary Medicine found that, “Children with autism spectrum disorders often struggle with interacting with others, which can make it difficult for them to form friendships. Children with autism may especially benefit from interacting with dogs, which can provide unconditional, nonjudgmental love and companionship to the children.” She also notes that pets can initiate social interaction for those with autism and lead to friendships and connections that otherwise wouldn’t be formed.
If you’re considering a companion animal as part of your mental health, there are a few things to keep in mind before bringing Fluffy home; the first being what type of pet is best for you. While dogs and cats are a popular choice, caring for birds and fish can be just as beneficial. If you do decide to adopt a dog or cat, spend some time researching the needs of different breeds and personalities. While it’s recommended that you ‘rescue’ your animal, this research will help you choose a breed whose activity level and temperament matches your own.
If you’re a pet owner with writing skills, Lincoln Animal Ambassadors would love to hear from you! We’re especially looking for content about birds, exotic animals, and horses. Content may take the form of an advice column or how-to articles. You may even simply wish to act as an expert consultant. If you’re interested, please post in the comments and we’ll be in touch.