From pooches to parakeets, koi to cats, our animals can have a profound effect on our mental wellbeing. But why is that, and are there things we can do to deepen the connection even further?
They’re in our homes, our hearts, and our passwords – and it really goes without saying that pets play a huge role in enriching our lives. In the UK, 12 million (44% of) households own pets, with an estimated 51 million pets owned in total. Cats and dogs top the charts as the most popular companions – no surprises there – but beloved pets come in all shapes and sizes, sharing our lives and staying by our side through all the highs and lows.
It’s something many of us will be familiar with, but in their 2019 review animal charity the Blue Cross highlighted seven areas of wellbeing that pets can support.
Those points were: love and company; motivation and purpose; trust; a distraction from symptoms; increased social interaction; exercise; and humour. In a survey, it also found that 43% of respondents felt that their pets were crucial in keeping their ‘mental health in check’.
But precisely what is it about pets that is so beneficial for our wellbeing? With help from an expert, and those who have their own stories to tell, we dive in to the core of these relationships.
The joy of play
Research has consistently found links between time spent with animals and a decrease in stress, anxiety, and even blood pressure. They act as companions – warding off both isolation and loneliness – they help establish a routine, get us out of the house, provide responsibility, and are something to nurture and love. But, as Kathryn Kimbley – a counsellor specialising in animal assisted therapy – sees it, one of the most important things when considering the mental health benefits is our pets’ ability to help us rediscover the joy of play.
“If we are depressed, anxious, stressed, or worse, then it’s nigh on impossible to play – it goes against every instinct,” Kathryn explains. “If we are able to ‘switch off’ and play, this means that our brains are not in that state of heightened arousal.
“We know that when we interact with animals certain good hormones are released. We also know that other more negative effects of stress hormones, such as cortisol, can also be reduced through interaction with animals.”
"Research has consistently found links between time spent with animals and a decrease in stress, anxiety, and even blood pressure"
Did you have a pet as a child? Can you conjure up memories of playtime together? Or perhaps you didn’t have a pet back then, but you can remember the thrill of adventures and play? Nurturing our inner child can be hugely supportive, and the silliness of animals is bound to bring those old habits back to the surface. But if you ever need more evidence of this link, and there isn’t a friendly animal to hand, Kathryn recommends heading to social media.
“Evidence of the positive impact of the human-animal bond is all the more so now, thanks to social media,” she says.
“Cute cat videos fill platforms like YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok, and we have to ask ourselves why it makes us feel good? Whether we’re watching wild animals playing or dogs goofing in the snow, in many ways such footage has been the saving grace for lots of us during lockdown and the global pandemic.”
While there’s no true replacement for the real thing, animal videos aren’t to be snubbed, as a study from the University of Leeds found that participant’s stress levels were significantly reduced after watching half an hour of animal videos. ‘Surprised kitty’, anyone?
All creatures great and small
Off the screen, it’s true that help comes in many forms, as Jade Hopkins found out when she adopted a baby tortoise, called Dell, at the beginning of lockdown in 2020.
“Just like many other families, lockdown hit us pretty hard,” Jade says. “Having a tortoise join our family, just when we were all starting to struggle, has really helped us.”
With her family, Jade researched safe and healthy foods for Dell to eat, and together they ventured outside on long walks, to forage for suitable weeds and flowers.
“Dell really has improved our mental health, and not just by being a little cutie!” she adds.
On the other side of the spectrum, Amanda Gaughran found a huge amount of comfort in her Blue Cross rescue horse, Jasmine, following the death of her daughter, Genna.
Amanda’s mental health was deteriorating, which led her to spend some time in hospital while she recovered.
“Caring for Jasmine gave me a purpose,” Amanda says. “We rescued each other in our times of need. I think she was sent to help me. It proves what great healers horses can be.”
Through our most trying times, animals are non-judgemental companions, loving us unconditionally, helping us to reclaim structure, and challenging us in new ways. And while Amanda and Jade’s pets may look very different, their emotional impact is felt just the same.
Outside of the home, animals are supporting our mental health in innovative ways. Animal assisted therapy (AAT) is a therapeutic model that uses animals to help people with both physical and mental health conditions. Exactly what those interactions are, or which animals are involved, will entirely depend on the individual and their needs – but studies have found AAT to be particularly helpful for decreasing anxiety, depression, and isolation, while increasing motivation, feelings of being socially supported, and even decreasing the perception of pain.
“Dogs, cats, rats, rabbits, or more exotic creatures such as degu, geckos, or even fish, can be hugely beneficial for us,” explains counsellor Kathryn. “Whether this is training them, caring for them, playing with them, grooming, or exercising them, it all contributes towards a beneficial human-companion animal relationship, which in turn can be therapeutic.”
Outside of therapy, this is something that anyone with a pet can engage in, and Kathryn suggests spending time aligning your breathing with your pet while taking slow, purposeful, relaxing strokes or brushes. She also points to animal massage, such as ‘TTOUCH’ (a simple technique using light, clockwise circular motions with your fingers), which can be beneficial for both your pet and yourself.
“Working on small projects linked to our companion animals can be immensely enjoyable, as well as helpful,” Kathryn adds. “Starting a blog, social media profile, or journaling about our pets’ antics, and milestones can be a great way to not only track their development, growth, and learning, but may be a welcome escape if we are struggling with low mood, depression, or anxiety.”
By your side
If you’re a pet owner yourself, it’s likely that you’ve already discovered many of the benefits we’ve explored here, and maybe even have your own story to tell about the ways that your pet has enhanced your life, or been there for you during challenging times – particularly during the past year. So just imagine the wellbeing benefits that you could unlock by being intentional about the supportive relationship you have with your companion.
On difficult days, when you need a friend, or on new adventures that lead you off-trail and down a path of discovery, give a nod to the animals by your side, and savour their unique ability to touch lives.
Not everyone is able to have a pet, whether that’s due to allergies, living arrangements, or economics. That said, there are other ways that you can benefit from the wellbeing boost that comes with caring for a living thing, and it may be time to put those green fingers to work.
A study published in the Journal of Physiological Anthropology looked at the effect that a transplanting task (repotting or putting a plant in a bed) had on a subject’s emotional wellbeing. The results found that the task left the subjects feeling soothed and comforted, and they also saw a decrease in blood pressure. Sounds pretty familiar, right?
Indoor plants are all the rage at the moment, and there’s a variety for every kind of space – no matter how small. If you have outdoor space, this adds another dimension to the experience and, as many of us already know, time outdoors often leaves us feeling invigorated and refreshed. Plants also offer us the opportunity to get creative, as we can plan out arrangements, and train our specimens to our heart’s desires.
Kathryn Kimbley is a counsellor and director of HumAnima CIC, a social enterprise offering counselling, Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT), and training in AAT. Find out more by visiting her profile, or counselling-directory.org.uk