The mental health benefits of owning a pet

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The human-animal bond is a fascinating topic that has been garnering more and more attention. People have become increasingly aware of the physical and mental health  benefits that pets can bring.  Humans have always been close to their pets. They treat them as family and even have special burials for them  (for example the cat buried with its owner 9,500 years ago at the site called Shillourokambos in Cyprus). Another example is the graves in Lake Baikal, Siberia, that had humans and dogs buried together. Although unaware of the scientifically proven benefits of owning a pet, prehistoric and ancient humans surely must’ve felt the effects in their daily lives as well.

What does HABRI have to say?

According to the HABRI (Human Animal Bond Research Institute) 2016 survey, ‘74% of pet owners reported mental health improvements from pet ownership, 75% of pet owners reported a friend’s or family member’s mental health has improved from pet ownership, 54% of pet owners reported physical health improvements from pet ownership, 55% of pet owners reported a friend’s or family member’s physical health has improved from pet ownership, and 83% of baby boomers and 82% of greatest/silent generations reported more personal experience with mental health improvements from pets than millennials (62%) and generation X (72%)’.  HABRI also started The Pet Effect Campaign, which is defined as being ‘a multi-pronged campaign aimed to introduce pet owners to the health benefits of the human-animal bond, and to understand how important their veterinarians are for happy, healthy pets’.

The effects of pet ownership

Dr. Greg Fricchione, director of the Harvard-affiliated Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine, has explained something quite interesting. The pure bond between man and his furry companion is enough to have positive physical effects. Oxytocin release lowers stress levels in the brain. Lower stress response means lower blood pressure, which can be beneficial to those suffering from blood pressure disorders.  Early life exposure to pets also leads to less allergies and reduced asthma risk in later life, according to an article published by the NHI describing the research.

Suffering people use pets as a form of therapy. Pet therapy, as defined by Mayo Clinic, ‘is a broad term that includes animal-assisted therapy and other animal-assisted activities’. Pet therapy helps people cope with pain better, which in turn reduces anxiety, depression and fatigue. Severe illnesses can really affect people. Moreover, poor mental health lowers overall life quality. In certain cases, it can be life endangering (suicide, constant self-harm, reckless behaviour etc.). The Mayo Clinic’s Caring Canines program offers this type of therapy to people suffering from dementia and PTSD  as well.

The importance of service dogs

Animals used to their full potential are service dogs. They are defined by ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) ‘as dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities’. Given that, service dogs aren’t pets, but rather working animals. They offer similar benefits to their owners who are already struggling immensely.

As such, pets hold a special place in the hearts of many people. They offer great companionship and various mental and physical health benefits. Owning a pet is not a magical cure for every problem in life. It greatly improves one’s quality of life. Following the advice given by HABRI, humans ought to appreciate pets more and treat them fairly. They serve a crucial part in human life.

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