Is There a Link Between Pets and Positive Mental Health?

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They make us laugh, they make us smile and when they leave us, they make us cry.
Pets are considered our best friends because they love us wholeheartedly regardless of anything else going on in our lives.

But can pets actually aid in improving our mental health?

According to The Centre for Mental Health, “There is no question that humans can form very deep bonds and attachments with animals and some animals appear to form very deep attachments with humans.”

“There is a widely held perception that these bonds can be beneficial, particularly to humans.”

An article by The Guardian claims that “canine companions trigger similar neural pathways to the parent-baby bond and reduce loneliness and depression.”

The article states that the key to developing a parent-baby bond with your pet comes down to “social recognition – the process of identifying another being as someone important and significant to you” or someone who you value as a big part of your life.

In other words, social recognition occurs when an individual recognises their pet as being a sentient being who thinks, who feels, who experiences, and who is considered a part of the family.

“We now understand that healthy social bonds can play a key role in mental health; without them, we become lonely, depressed, and physically unwell. And pets, it seems, can fulfil that role.”

One way that animals are being used to help create bonds with humans is through the use of animal assistance therapy (AAT).

Healthline describes AAT as being “a guided interaction between a person and a trained animal. It also involves the animal’s handler. The purpose is to help someone recover from or cope with a health problem or mental disorder.”

Animals are being used as a source of support for humans in a variety of areas.

There is animal assisted physical therapy which usually refers to dogs that visit hospitals and sit with ill people or there are assistance animals which are more of a companion animal that help people get through their day-to-day life activities.

AAT refers primarily to the use of animals from within the mental health sector.

Amber Rules has been using AAT in her counselling sessions for the past 6 years.

Amber is a psychotherapist, counsellor, clinical supervisor and facilitator who works alongside her therapy dog, Baxter. Amber is the Director of Rough Patch, a counselling service in Sydney’s Inner West.

Amber explains that “What’s useful about it [AAT] is that often your first few sessions with a therapist can be a little daunting, so a lot of clients really find a lot of comfort and joy in just meeting a dog. It helps to break the ice.”

Having Baxter there “really helps people to feel relaxed. As much as we try not to have a clinical feeling, at the end of the day you are coming to see a medical professional. That can be daunting, so it is really nice for them to be able to sit down and just play with the dog and feel comfort.”

“Baxter comes to most sessions with me but that is only if the client wants him there and we’ve talked about it first.”

“I’ve noticed that when a client gets emotional, Baxter tends to have a response. If a client is crying, he will sometimes go over and sit closer to them but if a client is getting quite animated, anxious or angry, Baxter will often get up and move away from them.”

“I view Baxter as a kind of co-counsellor, he gives me information or confirms information that I may not necessarily pay attention to if he wasn’t there.”

Amber warns that AAT is not for right for everyone and is often dependent on each individual client.

“There are people who for cultural or religious reasons can’t have contact with certain animals and there are people who are just not animal people. It’s not always that they don’t like them, it’s just that they might not feel connected to them. I’ve also had clients who are neutral about it and don’t care either way, he just sits in my lap and that’s fine for them.”

Amber claims that the biggest problem associated with AAT comes down to it “not being regulated in Australia – there’s no kind of official training. There’s not a peak body that you can register with to say that you’ve done a certain amount of training.”

“I’ve done training and even though it’s not professionally endorsed, at least it’s something. Part of that training is learning how to make sure that you are balancing the needs of the client and the animal at the same time.”

Amber advocates for the establishment of a regulatory body, “It is so important that it becomes a priority for AAT to become regulated within Australia” otherwise there is no standard to which animal can become a therapy animal.

Amber suggests that with the formation of a regulatory body, more clinicians would be likely to take up AAT and therefore more people would be aware of the benefits that pets have in improving mental health.

Health Direct lists some of these benefits as pets aiding in the reduction of stress, “pets providing companionship,” “pets providing a sense of purpose,” “pets increasing social interaction” and “pets improving fitness.”

Mental health campaigner, Marion Janner, is another advocate for using pets within the mental health sector.

Irrespective of our flaws or where we are in life, they “love us unconditionally. They’re the ultimate in equal opportunities – entirely indifferent to race, gender, star sign, CV, clothes, size or ability to throw cool moves on the dance floor.”

Janner explains that in addition to pets having mental health benefits for adults they also have valuable life lessons that teach children to get through tough times as well.

“They teach kids to be responsible, altruistic, compassionate and valuably but sadly, how to cope when someone you love dies.”

By Adair Winder.

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