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Raining Cats and Dogs - How Pets can Improve your Mental Health

by Quinn Walkes(more info)

listed in animals, originally published in issue 261 - March 2020

 

As a society we are pretty confused about mental health. For a long time it was mostly neglected because it was intangible and internal. Then came the rise of the SSRI: the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor - most famously fluoxetine, better known as Prozac - and we quickly fell in love with the idea of a ‘happy pill’: it seemed to a compellingly simple solution to a complex problem. 

If we felt down, that was because something had gone wrong with our brain chemistry, and we could correct that by simply popping a pill, just as we could treat physical pain quickly and easily with ibuprofen or paracetamol. The market boomed accordingly: well over 70 million prescriptions for antidepressants were issued across England in 2018 almost double the number issued ten years earlier.[1]

The pharmacological approach to depression is an internal one: it locates our negative feelings entirely within ourselves. If we feel sad, it’s down to us. We must be fixed. But the reality is more complex. What is happening to us - our lives - plays a huge role in our mental wellbeing.

In his 2018 book Lost Connections, journalist Johann Hari takes a deep dive into the causes of depression from the point of someone who had been prescribed antidepressants for many years. He talks to researchers and psychologists, considers case studies and concludes that the fundamental driver of depression is not brain chemistry but social isolation: a lack of meaningful connections with the world around us. 

Human beings are naturally social creatures. For most of our history we lived in extended family groups and tribes, with the meaningful figures in our lives all close at hand. But modern society has become atomized: we travel freely and pursue our own ambitions, and that comes with a lot of freedom, but the price we can end up paying is isolation. Families break down, friends and family scatter across the map.

Loneliness is a killer. Remarkably research suggests that its effects on physical health are as bad as smoking 15 cigarettes a day² - and there is an equally dramatic correlation between loneliness and mental health. The lonely are significantly more likely to develop depression and clinical dementia and to take their own lives.[2]

 

Pets Improve Mentsl Health Infographic 

Pets Improve Mental Health Infographic

 

Unfortunately there are no easy solutions. Making an effort to be social helps, as does staying in regular touch with family and friends. But it gets harder to make new friends as you get older, and in any case, people have their own lives, jobs, families and priorities. They may not have much time left for their families. But there is another solution, one that involves fewer complications. Get a pet. If you already have one, congratulate yourself for having taken such a significant step in the right direction.

Our furry friends bring many benefits into our lives, some physical and some emotional. The physical benefits of having to get out of your seat and walk your dog twice a day are pretty clear - but did you know that petting a dog or cat for just 15 minutes a day could lower your blood pressure by as much as ten per cent?[3] Meanwhile your levels of feel-good brain chemicals dopamine and serotonin will most likely also increase, inducing a feeling of relaxation and wellbeing. Pet owners are less likely to suffer from clinical depression than their solitary friends and neighbours.[4]

In a 2015 study by the Mental Health Foundation and the charity Cats Protection,[5] no less than 76% of cat-owning respondents said they felt better able to cope with the stresses and strains of life thanks to the presence in their lives of their furry friends - and a truly remarkable 87% said they felt a greater sense of wellbeing.

If there is no-one else in our lives, animals can satisfy those deep-rooted social instincts, providing us, at least to some degree, with a sense of companionship and a feeling of being valued by another living being. Pets can even make it easier to make new human friends: dog walkers often find themselves chatting to other dog walkers, providing the lonely with a valuable sense of connection to the communities around them.

Anyone who has ever owned a dog or cat will recognize  that, while they do have an understanding of time, it is much more cyclical than the human perception. Animals navigate through each day via routines they have grown accustomed to; meals at a certain time, walks at a certain time, sleep at a different time. Our pets live largely in the moment, focusing entirely on the present, unburdened by worries about the past and the future: and this sounds an awful lot like ‘mindfulness’ - an increasingly popular form of meditation focused on absorption in the present moment. 

It has been linked to lower levels of stress and anxiety and a greater sense of wellbeing. Ownership of a dog or cat offers similar benefits: perhaps they are a much needed reminder, in our increasingly frantic world, to stop and focus on the little joys around us each day.

Loneliness is a particular problem for older people. If they have children, they will usually have grown up, left home and moved far away to start their own families. Close relatives and significant others may have passed away. With no job to go to, retired older people often find themselves spending long stretches of time at home. Whole days can pass without them speaking to another person. A cat or dog provides companionship, a day-to-day emotional bond, and a sense of purpose - a reason to get out of bed in the morning. It’s hard to feel lonely if Fido is gazing at you, eager for breakfast or his morning walk.

Pets can also play a very important role in the lives of children. Looking after a dog or cat can teach a youngster responsibility and sensitivity, and again, provide companionship - the latter being especially important for children whose home lives are less than ideal. Dogs encourage exercise and also provide an outlet for the occasionally excess energies of children who have been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, more commonly known as ADHD.

In 1984, the biologist and naturalist Edward O Wilson proposed the concept of ‘biophilia’: this is the idea that human beings have an innate urge to surround ourselves with other forms of life, such as plants and animals, and that we derive a deep sense of wellbeing from doing so. Biophilia is, wrote Wilson, "the connections that human beings subconsciously seek with the rest of life." 

In psychology, ‘philias’, from the Greek word for ‘to love’ are the exact opposite of phobias, a term derived from the Greek word for fear. Philias are attractions, things to which we are strongly drawn. If biophilia is a reality, it may explain why we can form such deep emotional bonds with our companion animals and it may also account for the remarkable benefits to our physical and mental health they provide.

There is certainly something remarkable about the way pets can cut through the complex defenses we build around our relationships with other people and plug themselves straight into our emotions. Perhaps this is why people with autism, especially children, often respond so well to pets. People on the spectrum can struggle to interpret standard social cues like body language, small talk and facial expressions. But the bond provided by animals is much more straightforward: non-verbal and non-judgmental. Freed from the stressful complexities of human interaction, such children often relax with their pets. This in turn boosts their self-confidence and decreases their frequent tendency to sensory overstimulation: making interaction with their ‘neurotypical’ friends and family members a more inviting prospect. In addition, pets can provide autistic children with a useful social bridge - something to talk about with others and an incentive to interact.

A study[6] conducted in 2013 at the University of Missouri looked at 70 parents of children with autism. Close to two thirds of the families had dogs, and a decisive 94 per cent of these said their kids had bonded with them. Even within those families without dogs, 70 per cent said their children liked the animals.

So it seems that pet owners have a lot to gain and little to lose - expect of course, our furry and feathered friends themselves. As someone once said, the price of love is loss, and the grief people feel when their companion animals die can be very intense.[7] But that too can be educational: for many children, the death of a pet is the first time they experience loss: a painful lesson but one which can help them cope when they inevitably experience human bereavement later in their lives.

References

1.         Jump in antidepressant prescriptions in England, bbc.co.uk, 28 March 2019.

2.         Holt-Lunstad, 2015 

3.         Roshina Jowaheer, How petting a dog can lower your blood pressure by 10%, countryliving.com

4.         The Mood-Boosting Power of Pets, helpguide.org

5.         Moggies marvellous for mental health, cats.org.uk

6.         Gretchen K Carlisle, Pet Dog Ownership Decisions for Parents of Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder, Journal of Pediatric Nursing

7.         Finlo Rohrer, How much can you mourn a pet?, bbc.co.uk, 13 January 2010

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About Quinn Walkes

Quinn Walkes is currently working as a freelance graphic designer and copywriter. She covers a wide range of topics through her works, but is mostly interested in social issues, public health and animal welfare. Besides doing a job that she loves, she’s also fostering for a local shelter, much to her cat, Shadow’s displeasure. Quinn may be contacted via quinnwalkes@gmail.com

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