It’s Mental Health Awareness Week here in the UK, so we wanted to explore the connection between pet ownership and mental health.
Thankfully, in more recent times, the conversation about mental health is more open and honest than ever. Members of the Royal family have spoken out about their own mental health issues and act as patrons to dedicated charities; celebrities and public figures talk about their struggles; and the medical profession is more educated and understanding than before.
We hear advice on how to keep our mental health strong, and how to deal with negative mental health experiences in terms of physical behaviour, but what about external factors? Here, we’re looking at how owning a pet can have a positive effect on your mental health.
A well-known cause of low mood and depression is loneliness. The companionship provided by a pet can help to reduce feelings of loneliness by having ‘someone’ to talk to, or to give and receive cuddles. In extreme cases, pets have been attributed with saving people’s lives’ by giving them a focus and something to live for. Pets are great listeners and never talk back, are grateful for attention and always appreciative when you feed them! They give unconditional love, which can be essential for people who feel alone.
Studies have shown that stroking a pet can regulate breathing, lower blood pressure, relax muscle tension and slow heart rates; all signs of anxiety and stress. It can release serotonin and dopamine – happy hormones – which relax us and improve our mood.
Structure and focus
Pets don’t care if you’re tired, miserable or don’t want to get out of bed – they need feeding, walking, and general looking after. Owning a pet can give the structure needed to get through the day when you’re feeling troubled. Caring for a pet can also remind us that we need to care for ourselves too.
Exercise and fresh air
If exercise is good for mental health, then owning a dog might be the push needed to get out and about. Dogs require regular exercise and generally love walkies, which encourages their owners to take them out even when they may not themselves feel like it. Owning a dog is a big responsibility, which needs to be thought about before making a commitment, but it’s a great way to stick to daily exercise all year round.
Be more social
Owning a pet can help people become more social too. Many dog owners love to exchange pleasantries or stop for a chat on their daily walk. But all pets provide a commonality with friends and strangers; it gives us something to talk about and share stories about. With the love of pets on social media, isolated people can develop new friendships and relationships by sharing their pets photographs and joining in conversations on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health issues, there are medical professionals and registered charities that you can contact for help, support and advice, such as the Samaritans (116 123) or Mind (0300 123 3393).
If you or someone you know is struggling with the loss of a pet then there are pet bereavement services there to support you, such as Blue Cross (0800 096 6606) and Paws to Listen - Cats Protection (0800 024 9494).