If you’ve ever tried to escape the misery of a stressful day by looking at photos of adorable animals, you’re not just procrastinating. In fact, animals offer myriad mental health benefits, so those hilarious photos of ironic cats and clueless dogs you love searching for just might be part of the recipe for a happier life.
To demonstrate the stress-relieving effects of interacting with an animal, SoulPancake developed the first “kitten therapy” room in a recent video. Chronically stressed “patients” enter a glass room, where a recording lulls them into a peaceful state of meditation. And that’s when the kittens make their grand appearance, much to the delight of the previously stressed visitor.
So-called kitten therapy isn’t just a gimmick, though. Scientists are steadily amassing a mountain of data showing surprising—sometimes even unbelievable—benefits to simple interactions with animals.
Pet Owners: Happier and Healthier
When you contemplate how pets can benefit people’s lives, you might think primarily about service animals who are specially trained to complete specific tasks for people who are physically disabled. But a pet can benefit any person’s life.
Some people consider their pets to be emotional support animals and register them as such. Emotional support animals don’t require any special training, and they don’t come with any special privileges or access to public places where pets are not allowed the way service animals do—they simply provide companionship and unconditional love to their owners and may help their owners deal with mental health challenges. One 2011 study, for example, found that pet owners had better self-esteem, better physical fitness, and were less likely to be lonely, fearful, and preoccupied than their peers who did not own pets.
People with depression report being happier after getting a pet, and with good reason. Pets keep their owners active, and can serve as social ice breakers, making it easier to talk to other pet owners at parks and pet stores. They also provide an incentive to get up, get moving, and face the world—a powerful antidote to the isolation people with mental health issues sometimes experience.
Benefits of Animal Interactions
If you’re not up for the costs and time constraints of pet ownership, though, you don’t have to miss out on all the benefits of human-animal interactions, as SoulPancake’s kitten therapy makes clear. Research shows that even a few moments interacting with pets can boost well-being. Children who interact regularly with pets have lower allergy rates, likely because they become desensitized to pet dander.
Teens who participated in a study that allowed them weekly interactions with horses showed higher levels of personal responsibility, improved self-awareness, and better relationship skills. Another study of 40 elderly adults found that dogs could help stave off dementia and, in some participants, improve cognitive skills.
Interacting with animals requires little effort, but yields big benefits. It should come as no surprise, then, that animal-assisted therapy is increasingly popular. We tend to think of dogs and horses when we envision animal-assisted therapy, but cats, llamas, and other animals can fill the role too. Pet owners can pursue certification for their dogs and cats to become visitors at nursing homes, hospitals, and other health care facilities where patients report that just a few minutes with an animal can make an entire week better.
Though animals have been used to enhance the physiological, psychological, and social lives of humans for many centuries, the practice of using animals in therapeutic settings has not been widely accepted until recent decades. Many mental health therapists find that using pets as a source of therapy for their clients can enhance therapeutic outcomes. Children, for example, may feel more comfortable telling a dog or cat about a traumatic event, and adults can reap the calming benefits of petting an animal while discussing the stress of everyday life.
If you’re interested in working with your own pet to help others, check out one of the many organizations that offers pet therapy programs. Pet Partners is a nationally recognized organization, and the American Kennel Club maintains a directory of local and national organizations dedicated to preserving human well-being through interactions with animals.
- New research findings highlight benefits of human-animal interaction. (2013, July 22). Retrieved from http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2013-07/aw-nrf072213.php
- The Differences Between Service Dogs, Therapy Dogs and Emotional Support Animals. (n.d.) Retrieved from http://pleasedontpetme.com/differences.php
- The truth about cats and dogs: Pets are good for mental health of ‘everyday people’. (2011, July 11). Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2011/07/cats-dogs.aspx
- Townshend, A. (2014, June 20). 5 ways pets benefit your health. Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/2014/06/20/health/pets-health-benefits/
- Vormbrock, J. K., & Grossberg, J. M. (1988). Cardiovascular effects of human-pet dog interactions. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 11(5), 509-517. doi: 10.1007/BF00844843
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