The Benefits of the Human-Animal Bond for Mental Health

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Dr Simone Maher answers questions on animal mental health

Dr Simone Mather answers our questions on the human-animal bond, how it plays a role in animal mental health, and shares her top mental fitness tips on improving your pet’s mental state and wellbeing.

The love, care, and joy pets have brought into our lives not only bring positive energy and good vibes to us but our furry, scaled, and feathered buddies have even taught us valuable life lessons. Like the feeling of gratitude from the cuddles they receive and give us. Or making sure we take time to play and go on walks to clear our minds and live a balanced life, especially during these times of change and uncertainty. But most of all, we enjoy friendship and shared connections where a pet’s unconditional love and sensitivity to our human emotions become a valuable part of the human-animal bond.

A survey by the Human-Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI) has found that pet ownership and animal companionship can improve mental well-being and physical health of the owner. Another HABRI survey found that 97% of family doctors who responded agreed there are health benefits of owning pets.

In this Baxta health + pawsitivity Q & A, Dr. Simone Maher, Baxta’s resident vet shares her insights and answers our questions on the vital role pets play in our everyday lives. We’ll uncover how they improve our mental well-being and how we as pet parents can help their health and well-being in return.

Q: Simone, first of all could you tell us what the human-animal bond is in a nutshell?

Dr Maher: “I sure can! It’s essentially the relationship between a human and an animal and the key thing is that both benefit from that connection.”

Q: Can you explain how the power of human-animal bond benefits pet owners and, on the flip side, their pets?

Dr Maher: “Well, several studies quantify the benefit of pet ownership to humans. And I think just about any pet owner you can think of would tell you that a pet can have a significant positive impact on their mood. They can provide companionship — particularly important for socially isolated people, which is a necessary concern at this new normal we’re all living in. 

The good thing about owning pets is that they can promote certain positive behaviours such as physical activity. If you’ve got a dog, and you know, the dog demands to go for a walk, it gets you off the couch and moving. Pets also provide a sense of purpose or reason to get out of bed in the morning. Some studies have shown that pet ownership is linked to improvements in cardiovascular health. 

That’s not all; interesting studies have shown that a pet can help you when you’re coping with feelings of rejection. So social rejection, heartbreak, or a friendship breakdown, a pet can positively influence your outlook. And in terms of the pet, well, I guess, they’re entirely dependent on their pet parent for everything. So it’s really up to us to make sure that we can meet all of their physical and psychological needs.”

Q: Congratulations on completing the Mental Health First Aider course to help people who may need support. So you not only understand animals but the people who care for them as well. Do you think the main signs of mental stress and anxiety between humans and animals are similar?

Dr Maher: “Well, I certainly couldn’t proclaim to be an expert in human mental health. But having been a clinician for many, many years, interacting with many clients, and with the benefit of the Mental Health First Aid course, I’ve gained a little bit of insight. 

Some of the signs that we often associate with emotional stress in humans can be pretty similar to those we see in pets — things like changes in appetite and subsequent weight changes. It may be changes in toileting behaviour, or behavioural changes, such as becoming more withdrawn or more agitated and fidgety, and perhaps a change in reactivity. So an animal might display a lower tolerance for certain things, whether it’s interaction with other pets or interactions with people and that sort of thing.”

Q: Let’s say we have a young nervous pup. What can a pet owner do to help improve their mental state and well being?

Can certain things like crate training assist help them feel safe, secure, and less anxious?

Dr Maher: “That’s a really interesting question — one thing I’d like to preface it with is that I think it’s crucial to respect that not all dogs have the same personality. Like humans, some dogs are more social, some are more outgoing, and some are more gregarious. So, when we’re talking about a nervous pup or a withdrawn dog, we need to remember that we aim to help any dog be the best they can be without putting unrealistic expectations on them. 

So the first thing is a measurement of respect and understanding. Then on top of that, there are three golden rules: patience, kindness, and consistency. And maybe one more which would be if you’re struggling — expert guidance to help set you and your pet on the right track.”

Q: Ensuring our pet has the right diet and is getting enough exercise is essential, but mental stimulation is equally vital for their mental health and well-being. What are some of the signs that a pet is bored or mentally unstimulated?

Can you share with us your top tips for mentally stimulating a pet? Or simple ways to teach a dog how to entertain himself?

Dr Maher: “Fundamentally, if we’re failing to meet a dog’s need, the dog is going to find a way to meet those needs herself. And so that might mean things that aren’t so desirable to us, like digging up the garden and pulling washing off the line. Sometimes those behaviours can also be associated with anxiety and frustration, which can be related to boredom. We can address this by providing adequate exercise, emotional fulfilment, such as physical contact, petting and grooming, a nutritious diet, and mental stimulation. All these factors can improve animal mental health. 

My favourite form of mental stimulation is food puzzles; I adore food puzzles, especially for dogs being left alone. There’s a heap of ideas on the internet if you want to get crafty and make some yourself with just the sort of stuff you already have around the home. Or you can buy toys and different devices that you can stuff with food. A favourite example is licking mats which provide rewarding stimulation.”

Q: Over the past few months, we’ve bonded a lot more than usual with our pets. As lockdown lifts and we look towards returning to work with nervous anticipation, can our mood affect our pet? Can they sense our anxiety? Excitement? Sadness? What are your tips for adjusting with the separation?

Dr Maher: “As humans, we are pretty simple in our ability to sense communication in others effectively. Most of us tend to rely heavily on spoken language. In comparison, dogs and many animals are adept at picking up what we would never perceive, like subtle changes in our posture or specific aspects of our body language. And that means that they can be effective interpreters of our mood and can sense those different feelings or emotions we’re experiencing.

Separation post-COVID will be hard for many dogs (and people!) If you anticipate returning to work and school soon, setting expectations for reality will help your pet adjust to the routine. For example, if at the moment you’re walking your dog five or six times a day, but once you return to everyday life, it’s going to be once or twice, I would recommend gradually changing the routine.

That way, they’re not feeling confused and wondering why everything is all of a sudden different. And again, just referring back to something I said earlier, which is making sure you meet their needs as well as providing mentally stimulating food games while you’re away will also help.”

 To learn more about animal mental health, read our blog.