May is Mental Health Month, and EternalCore.org is joining broaden awareness of the #4Mind4Body theme. Each week will explore how spirituality and religion, humor, animal companionship, recreation social connections, and work-life balance should be of interest to people working to improve mental health.
Animals play important roles in the lives of many people. Some dogs, for example, work as seeing-eye dogs and others are trained to detect seizures. Some animals are used in occupational therapy, speech therapy, and physical rehabilitation. Aside from these therapeutic roles, animals are also valued for companionship, which can certainly affect the quality of our lives and our mental health.
Animal Companionship at Home
Dogs and a cat were part of our family for more than forty years, and yes we did find them sleeping together often. As time went by, members of the family became dependent on their companionship, each in a different way. Nearly every day, for decades, the big dogs were my running companions and then later in life my walking companions.
Together they comforted us when we were sad or climbed on to the bed with us when we were ill.
As our companions, they had a sense when we needed them and stayed with us until we felt better.
Not a birthday went by that the big, red dog, Simba would join in the singing as we lit and blew out candles. We were never sure what that was all about, but with any birthday you could count on him joining in.
I think we thought we got the animals for our kids, but once they grew up and moved out, our pets were still wonderful companions for us as a couple. Blogging with a dog at your feet is more comforting to me than a warm fire in winter. Reaching down with a hand just to itch and ear or pat on the head, seemed to make me relax and write all the better
And of course, one by one, they got older and together we did less activity. They showed us how to age with dignity, working through their own pain but still active to the end. Though they have all passed on, they had a profound impact on each of our four children’s lives and the quality of our family life too and at least one daughter still benefits from animal companionship. Here is what she had to say about the subject.
“Having animals is crucial to winning my fight with depression. They are the first thing to make me smile each day and my reason to get out of bed on days I can’t do it for myself. They are my higher power. The souls that exist outside of myself that I trust to know me completely and love me unconditionally. My judgment-free listeners, and constant companions that genuinely want to see me happy without having to lose any bit of what makes me, me. The fact that they give so much and ask so little motivates me to be a better person for them today than I was yesterday.”
Most American’s and their families find similar kinds of relationships with their animal companions. And by most American, I mean most. Mental Health America (MHA), reports that nearly 70% of U.S. households (84.6 million)own a pet.1 Of those owners, statistics show:
• 80% believe their pets bring them happiness and emotional support;
• 55% believe their pets reduce anxiety and depression; and
• 66% believe their pets relieve stress.
Animal Companionship at Work
According to a 2016 report in the International Journal of Workplace Health Management, workplaces that adopt pet-friendly policies and allow animal companionships at work experience benefits like:2
• Attracting more job candidates;
• Keeping their employees longer;
• Better employee health; and
• Increased productivity among workers.
In Fortune, they reported on “10 Pet-Friendly Companies Where It’s Always Take Your Dog to Work Day” stated that businesses “with open door policies that let dog owners take their dogs to work often cite benefits such as a stress relief as one of the reasons for allowing dogs in the office. Some also highlight that dogs at work help employees break the ice during tense meetings and encourage more friendly socializing in the office.”
Another company, WorkDay, that is a human resource (HR) software company says dogs at work can “keep the mood light.” The company even offers “financial assistance to employees looking to adopt a shelter dog.”
What Does Science Say About Animal Companionships and Health?
- Improved cardiovascular health and physical activity. In a scientific statement from the American Heart Association, they recommend, “Pet ownership, particularly dog ownership, may be reasonable for reduction in cardiovascular disease risk.”3
- Decrease stress and lower blood pressure. In a study made by Sandra Barker where she examined stress-buffering response patterns from interactions with therapy dogs, she concluded, “Positive attitudes toward pets in the total sample of dog owners were associated with decreased levels of self-reported stress.”4
- Reduce loneliness, which increases the risk of many chronic health conditions. Two researchers, Antonacopoulos and Pychy from the Department of Psychology, at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. wrote. “…studies suggest that, with the possible exception of seniors, pet ownership may be beneficial for the psychological health of individuals living alone.”5
- Fewer doctor visits. “A study of women in China found that those who were dog owners had fewer doctor visits, took fewer days off sick from work, and exercised more often than non-dog owners.”6
- Better response to cancer treatment. Studies have shown in people with cancer, animal-assisted interventions (i.e. therapy, education, activities) play a role in reducing anxiety, depression, and aggression during treatment.7
- Improved mental health treatment People receiving treatment for mental illnesses benefited from animal-assisted interventions showing reduced anger, anxiety, depression, and general distress while improving the ability to socialize.8
- Extra help for critically ill patients. “Studies have also shown that animal interactions have the ability to help people who are critically ill by reducing stress, anxiety, and boredom; improving mood, and reducing heart rate and blood pressure.”9
Animal Companionships Help People with Mental and Physical Health Conditions
“For people being treated for HIV, those who own dogs show fewer symptoms of depression and are better at taking medications—likely because of the routines that come with dog ownership.”10
“The majority of people with diabetes who own Diabetic Alert Dogs are less worried about extreme changes in insulin levels, and experience improved quality of life and the ability to participate in physical activities.11
“People who are hearing impaired showed long-term reductions in depression after getting a service dog.12 “Veterans with PTSD reported decreases in depression, social isolation, anxiety, and alcohol abuse, while also reporting improved sleep and better coping with flashbacks after being paired with service dogs.”13
The National Center for Health Research, reports, “Researchers have also used animals to temporarily provide companionship to children with health or mental health problems, or elderly people who may not have the energy or resources for a live-in pet. While these studies do not always have consistent results, some positive findings of interacting with a therapy dog include reduced levels of pain and anxiety among hospitalized children and adults, as well as increased focus and interaction among children with autism and other developmental disorders. In nursing home settings, interaction with visiting dogs has led to more social behaviors, more interaction among residents, and less loneliness.”14
Additionally, MHA reports that service dogs may help lighten caregivers responsibilities “by assisting those with disabilities to accomplish everyday tasks and alerting to symptoms of chronic health conditions.”15
Mental Health America invites you to share pictures of your animal companionships by posting with #4mind4body on Twitter and Instagram. And don’t forget to leave your thoughts in the comment section below.
1 2017-2018 APPA National Pet Owners Survey.
2 Wilkin, Christa L., Paul Fairlie, and Souha R. Ezzedeen. “Who let the dogs in? A look at pet-friendly workplaces.” International Journal of Workplace Health Management 9.1 (2016): 96-109.
3 Levine, Glenn N., et al. “Pet ownership and cardiovascular risk: a scientific statement from the American Heart Association.” Circulation 127.23 (2013): 2353-2363.
4 Barker, Sandra B., et al. “Exploratory study of stress-buffering response patterns from interaction with a therapy dog.” Anthrozoös 23.1 (2010): 79-91.
6 Headey BW, Fu Na, Zheng R (2008). Pet Dogs Benefit Owners’ Health: A ‘Natural Experiment’ in China. Soc Indic Res. 87:481-493.
7 Orlandi, M., Trangeled, K., Mambrini, A., Tagliani, M., Ferrarini, A., Zanetti, L., Tartarini, R., Pacetti, P., & Cantore, M. (2007). Pet therapy effects on oncological day hospital patients undergoing chemotherapy treatment. Anticancer Research, 27(6C), 4301-4303; and Gagnon, Johanne, et al. “Implementing a hospital-based animal therapy program for children with cancer: a descriptive study.” Canadian Oncology Nursing Journal/Revue canadienne de soins infirmiers en oncologie 14.4 (2004): 217-222.
8 Annick Maujean, Christopher A. Pepping & Elizabeth Kendall (2015) A Systematic Review of Randomized Controlled Trials of Animal-As-sisted Therapy on Psychosocial Outcomes, Anthrozoös, 28:1, 23-36
10 Muldoon, A., Kuhns, L., Supply, J., Jacobson, K.C., & Garofalo, R. (2017). A web-based study of dog ownership and depression among people living with HIV. Journal of Medical Internet Research Mental Health 4(4).
11 Gonder-Frederick, Linda, et al. “Diabetic alert dogs: a preliminary survey of current users.” Diabetes Care 36.4 (2013): e47-e47.
12 Wells, D. (2009). The effects of animals on human health and well-being. Journal of Social Issues 65(3):523- 543.
13 O’Haire, Marguerite E., and Kerri E. Rodriguez. “Preliminary efficacy of service dogs as a complementary treatment for posttraumatic stress disorder in military members and veterans.” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 86.2 (2018): 179.; and Rodriguez, Kerri E., et al. “The Effect of a Service Dog on Salivary Cortisol Awakening Response in a Military Population with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).” Psychoneuroendocrinology (2018).
14 Johnson RA (2011). Animal-assisted interventions in health care contexts. In McCardle P, McCune S, Griffin JA & Maholmes V (Eds.), How animals affect us (pp. 183-192). Washington D.C.: American Psychological Association.
15 Mental Health America (MHA), 4Mind4Body: Animal Companionship