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5 Ways Animals Play an Important Role in Mental Health

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As a natural born animal lover and someone who has spent most of her life working in the pet industry, I may be a little biased when I say that keeping animals as pets does wonders for the human psyche. But there have been a number of studies done over the years stating that frequent interaction with animals improves both mental and physical health, and some even say that owning pets can make you live longer.

Of course, we see evidence of the important role therapy animals play in helping people with physical disabilities every day, and we all think of the classic golden Labrador when talking about seeing eye dogs. Now I am starting to see more and more dogs of varying breeds on visits to shopping centers; some say “hearing dog” on their little jackets. However, many of these are unspecified “service animals” and play a big part in helping those of us with mental health issues such as anxiety stay grounded and perform tasks such as grocery shopping more comfortably.

Another great example of using animals as therapy is “hippotherapy,” which despite the name is actually the practice of using horses as therapy animals – it might not be quite as cool as using hippopotamuses, but it is still very cool! I personally know a few families who have had wonderful success when their autistic children with language and sensory processing disorders have gone on to develop strong bonds with a horse, as they learn to trust each other through touch and body language.

But how do animals improve our mental health?

1. Unconditional love and devotion

This is the big one, something that in my opinion is impossible to achieve with humans. Animals — dogs in particular — will always love you and forgive you no matter what, even if you were too tired to take them for a walk today – or yesterday, even if dinner was two hours late and even if you got mad at them 15 minutes ago for chewing your brand new slippers. As soon as you say their name, that tail will start wagging 100 miles an hour.

2. They don’t talk back

Unless of course you have a trained parrot, in which case any backchat is usually exceptionally cute and sometimes hilarious, bordering on the inappropriate. But in all honesty, if you are unable to introduce your pet parrot to your grandmother then you have most likely brought that upon yourself!

But the ability to be able to simply pour your heart out to your feline friend and then be validated by soft cuddles and purring instead of judgment and opinions can go a long way.

3. Ability to pick up on emotional cues

Animals have this innate ability to tell when you are having a bad day and then respond to it appropriately. Who can stay angry for long when those big puppy dog eyes are staring at you with such devotion? I know when I am sad or depressed my animals always respond. My little Pomeranian “Deigo” is particularly tuned to my feelings and on bad days he will sneak up onto the bed next to me and just cuddle quietly into me, giving me the odd reassuring lick to tell me he loves me.

pomeranian dog with open mouth panting

4. No judgment

So you haven’t showered in three days and just ate a full tub of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, while binge watching seasons 1 and 2 of “Gilmore Girls.” So what? As long as your furry companion can cuddle up on the couch next to you then as far as they are concerned, just let it be.

5. Responsibility

Owning a pet, while extremely rewarding, also forces us to be responsible for something other than ourselves. This is important. On days when the depression is winning our pets still need us. Their whole worlds revolve around us and even if getting out of bed seems impossible, we still need to feed them, walk them, talk to them and love them. While it can feel like a chore, being forced out of bed to take little LuLu outside into the sunshine for a pee is actually very good for us.

During my many years working in a pet store, we had tons of regular customers. We saw these customers go through all manner of life events; we saw how the bond of a dog could be lifesaving after the death of a spouse, we watched the hilarity of merging blended cat families together, loaned fish out for weddings, watched custody fights over blue tongue lizards after divorce, and supplied information to help convince tentative landlords that keeping a pet turtle would be fine in a rental home. We even babysat an axolotl while one man did a 3-month tour over in Afghanistan.

Some of our customers were unable to keep pets in their own houses but came in every week just to visit. One older lady came into the shop every single morning at 9:30 a.m. Monday to Sunday for over five years and never bought a thing; her visits were part of her daily routine and helped keep her mental health on track. Pets are simply a huge part of human society; they need us and we need them.

As my regular readers know, my own animals are a big part of my life. I live on a farm and keep many pets. They are just as good as my children at helping me keep structure and routines in my days, better possibly because they can’t tell me what they need verbally so we need to be more in tune with each other and communicate on a deeper level.

I also love the way they don’t judge me if I’m still in my pyjamas when I take them for a walk around the farm, and they don’t yell at me for forgetting to buy Cornflakes or neglecting to remind them their major history assessment worth 50 percent of their grade is due the next morning…

So, I believe having animals in your life is an important part of maintaining good mental health.

For people with fur allergies, fish are excellent pets. I can literally spend a half hour just staring at my big fish tank, watching all the goings-on; it’s a bit like meditation for me. Even if you can’t own a pet yourself, then go to your local pet store and pet a bunny, visit the zoo or even ask if you can walk your neighbor’s dog while they are at work. I promise it will brighten up your day.

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Originally published: June 28, 2017
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