How Animals Can Help Our Mental Wellbeing

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I’m a self-confessed crazy cat lady. My family have owned cats since I was born and I can’t imagine not having feline friends in my life. One of the hardest things I find about renting my own place is the absence of pets. (This results in regular visits back to the family home to get my fix!) In fact, I love cats so much that I volunteer as a cat carer at my local Blue Cross centre once a week. I can’t think of a better way to spend my Sunday afternoons than surrounded by adorable cats and kittens!

While cats are undoubtedly my favourite, I have a lot of love for animals in general. I’d go so far as to say I prefer them to people most of the time. There are so many benefits to being around animals, from companionship to comfort. Now science is proving that our relationships with animals are good for our mental health. A study by psychologists at Miami University and St. Louis University found that the emotional benefits of owning a pet can be the same as from human friendship.

So, just how can pets help us mentally and emotionally?

They don’t judge. For me, this has to be one of the top (if not the most important) reasons why I love animals so much. They’re non-judgemental. They don’t hold a grudge. They don’t care if you didn’t put on make-up this morning or if that presentation you gave yesterday didn’t hit the mark. They just accept us as we are. I’ve written before about how I deal with being a highly sensitive person and animals are a real source of relief for me. They understand my dislike of bright lights, sudden movements and loud people – we’re kindred spirits! And apart from when they’re hungry, they don’t make too many demands on my energy either. Quite the opposite actually – they help me feel more energised and calmer.

This brings me onto my next point. They’re calming. In an article on thedodo.com, Keith Humphreys (a professor of psychiatry and behavioural sciences at Stanford University) says ‘holding and stroking a pet is calming for many people.’ When I’m feeling anxious or stressed, I do seek out my cats. Their chilled out nature is infectious, stroking them is calming and listening to their purr is soothing. I was always grateful for their company when writing my university assignments!

They’re loyal. Even though many animals have an open, friendly nature, their owners are their favourite humans. To know that my cats appreciate me and trust me so implicitly is a great feeling. My cats turn seventeen this year. We’ve known each other so long that my bond with them is stronger than those I have with some of my closest friends!

They make great companions. Pets are a wonderful way to combat loneliness. There’s always someone else around, someone who needs you. Dogs in particular are excellent motivators. They need walking every day and that forces their owners out of the house – something essential for sufferers of depression. You can’t retreat from the world when you have a dog to walk! And getting out there with your canine companion increases the likelihood of human interaction. You’ll encounter other dog walkers, offering opportunity to chat to people without too much pressure. It’s a useful way of helping us to stay connected to the world.

They listen. They might not understand what you’re saying but they don’t interrupt with tales of their own woes or dish out bad advice. I can waffle on to my pets for hours and that can be enough to get a bad day out of my mind. Their inability to repeat what you’ve said also makes them excellent secret keepers!

They give us a sense of purpose. This is another reason why pets are so brilliant in times of depression. We have to feed our pets and care for them, even when we don’t feel like caring for ourselves. They give us a reason to get up in the morning. And taking good care of another living thing gives us a sense of reward. We can see that our actions have led to something positive, even when everything else might seem bleak.

They’re sensitive. This ties in with my first point, but animals are far more perceptive than the average person. From dogs that bark to cats that hiss at particular people for no obvious reason, animals pick up on things so subtle we don’t notice ourselves. They’re brilliant judges of character and they can often sense changes in our mood. My cats know to stay out of the way when I’ angry and if I’m feeling down, they’ll often jump up next to me and give me their undivided attention for a while. I like to think it’s their way of helping to cheer me up!

More studies into the link between animals and mental wellbeing are being carried out all the time, so we’re sure to learn more about it in time. Animal therapy is becoming increasingly popular because of the calming and relaxing effects they have. The presence of animals in hospitals and care homes isn’t uncommon either.

I, for one, will be in full support of integrating animals more into our daily lives. I hope one day that office pets will become a fixture of the workplace! Until then, I’ll content myself with my weekly trips to the Blue Cross.

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