I’ve always felt a special affinity with animals, and I grew up surrounded by pets. At our peak, we had quite the menagerie - three cats, a golden retriever, a rabbit, a budgie and two goldfish. Now I lead a somewhat quieter life in an apartment with my ageing parents. But we are still kept company by my beloved moodle (a cross between a maltese and poodle) Bailey, and Apollo the abandoned goldfish. I rescued him from my apartment block, in a story that’s gone down in the family history. What can I say? We’re animal lovers.
Can pets help improve mental health?
If you haven’t got a pet and you’ve ever thought about getting one, I’m here to tell you why it could be a great idea. Spending time around animals is not only great for your life, but it benefits your health. And there’s heaps of research to prove it. Owning a pet can help you make necessary lifestyle changes, lower blood pressure, and improve your heart and brain health (including in people with dementia).
But I don’t need to be sold on the merits of pets. I know it from my own experience. When my parents and I need to relax after a long day at work, watching Bailey get treats from her self-feeder bowl or playing tug-of-war with her can work wonders. Even just patting her while we watch TV, or observing Apollo swimming around in his tank might do the trick.
Mental health benefits of owning a pet
Some of the biggest benefits from hanging out with Bailey are on my emotional and mental health. Once again, it’s not just me. Pets have been shown to:
• Reduce stress
• Boost positive mood and mindfulness
• Encourage focus and concentration in the present moment
• Give a sense of purpose and meaning
• Promote empathy and self-care behaviours like exercise
These positive impacts are particularly important for people at increased risk of experiencing mental health issues, which can include older people and people with a disability.
And it goes further than being a protective factor. For those of us who experience mental health conditions like anxiety and depression (as well as panic attacks), pets can be a wonderful source of comfort and support. They can even assist people to manage their emotions in the midst of a crisis. And if you spend a lot of time in bed or are otherwise isolated, there’s nothing more therapeutic and relaxing than a pet snuggling up to you from the end of your bed or sitting on your lap. They give us unconditional love and opportunities for touch, which are basic human needs.
Social health benefits to owning a pet
In researching this article, many disabled friends said that having a pet or engaging with animals can also significantly influence your social health. Of course, this has become especially important during the COVID-19 pandemic. For instance, the simple act of having Bailey to walk gives me great motivation to go outside in the fresh air and sunshine. Cats, birds, guinea pigs, rabbits or mice are also fantastic companions. Another great option is horse-riding, such as through Riding for the Disabled. Activities like this offer a fabulous opportunity to build confidence and foster positive connections with others.
The importance of this cannot be underestimated for those most likely to experience loneliness, exclusion or social isolation. This includes but is not limited to those recovering from significant illness or living in aged care who may not participate widely within the community.
What about service animals?
While strictly a little more than just pets, it’s worth mentioning that service and assistance animals can promote independence or even respond to medical episodes. They are highly trained and can assist with a variety of needs for an individual’s situation - including physical, mental and social health needs. Some may perform tasks like using the phone, retrieving items, opening doors, pushing buttons, carrying shopping, and supporting someone to get dressed or go to bed.
There is a flipside to all this too. No matter what you think might be good for you, getting a pet is a big decision. Pet ownership will change your life in many ways, and it comes with a lot of responsibility. So make sure you’re ready for all the practical and emotional pressures of that - including the grief of losing a pet you have become very attached to.
If you want to own a pet, go for it! It’s a journey of true joy and will bring so much to your life.
Emily Dash is an emerging writer, actor, producer and speaker. She has a wide range of credits across theatre and screen.