The idea that pets relieve depression, stress, anxiety, and anything in between aren’t unfounded.
Animal-assisted therapy began way back in the late 1800s when a woman by the name of Florence Nightingale first recognized the potential of animals to assist in treating mental conditions.
Years later, in the 1930s, Sigmund Freud, “the father of psychoanalysis”, became a supporter of this theory. He even began bringing his favorite dog to his sessions.
The idea that Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT for short) is effective isn’t something new. No, not at all.
Research seems to be a bit mixed up though.
One study from 2003 describes an experiment in which 35 people participated.
During their treatment, these people were subjected to 15 minutes of AAT each day.
Results were compared with 15 minutes of exposure to animal-related magazines.
According to this research, the sense of fear (phobia) was reduced by 37%, with the levels of anxiety decreasing by 18% as well.
The real issue is that the research showed to relation between depression and AAT
To contrast that, another study showed an overall significantly lower levels of depression (and depressive symptoms) in nursing homes that had a dog when compared to those who don’t.
That just raises a question – what’s up with that?
One study showed that depression doesn’t change through AAT, but another one shows that simply having a pet (dog) around does wonders.
As you can see, results are pretty mixed up.
Is there a particular reason for that? Well, not really.
There isn’t any particular research to indicate why results tend to get mixed up.
I can give you my personal argument for the subject, though.
It depends on the cause
An article in the Journal of Psychological Nursing and Mental Health Services that was published in 2006 discusses a dog by the name of Cocoa.
The owner reported how simply being around his dog decreased his feelings of loneliness, social isolation, and depression.
Another study from 2013, with 13 patients in mind, confirmed this theory over a much more extensive follow-up research over the course of 6 months.
What does this tell us? We can only theorize.
It’s in my, wholly unprofessional opinion, that the helpfulness of AAT isn’t based off on the treatment itself, but on what actually caused this.
This idea, of treating anxiety and depression through their causes, is a core belief of this website.
Here’s the deal – from what research shows us we can pinpoint the causes that are being treated as stress, loneliness (empathic) and social isolation.
What do we learn from this?
What does it actually tell us, though? A lot more than what you may think, I would imagine!
Y’see, when discussing stress it mostly comes and goes only in regards to anxiety, there isn’t a direct link between stress and depression.
Stress and anxiety are related, though, and since anxiety relates to depression, stress isn’t all that disconnected from depression, to begin with.
This actually explains why AAT helps anxiety and fear (phobia) but has shown a much lesser (nonexistent) result regarding depression.
This also provides an explanation as to why depression is still shown to fade among certain people after being exposed to simple interactions with animals.
All of the people that reported an improvement in their condition were either old, lonely, or both. In their case, they felt lonely as well as socially isolated, something that may very well be a contributing factor to their depressive condition.
Loneliness and isolation
In regards to anxiety and depression, loneliness and isolation are an exclusive factor for depression.
Lonely people don’t suffer from anxiety and fear, except maybe the social kind.
What’s the difference, though? Aren’t both the same?
Well, no, not really.
You see, social isolation is just that – being isolated, alone.
That feeling may very well build up to depression should it be intense enough.
Loneliness, on the other hand, is the actual feeling of isolation.
You feel as though no one can relate to you and that tends to make you feel worthless.
You have no one that you can actually enjoy, no one to support you, regardless of how many people you spend your time with.
Pets are the answer
These three concerns I have mentioned just now?
Yeah, simply owning your own pet may go a long way in solving them, no necessary need for AAT quite yet.
Most researchers tend to prefer dogs for this task (in most researchers that I have read they used dogs), yet you can use other animals to varying levels of effectiveness.
Sigmund Freud himself believed in dogs as the best empathy/emotion-detecting animals, but your results may vary based on your favored animals.
It’s all subjective after all.
A 2001 research that included 48 participants showed that pet owners have a significantly lower blood pressure and an overall lower reaction towards mental stress than those who don’t.
To put this simply, pets have a calming effect on their owners, they kill stress by nature and help to deal with further stress by simply being around.
Pretty crazy, isn’t it?
Owning a dog can be beneficial for your health over a long term of time. By killing off stress they also ensure a significantly lower chance of suffering from anxiety, which is always a huge plus.
Another part of the reasoning behind these results is how needy our pets can be, surprisingly enough.
Food, water, affection.
All of these things create a link between us and our pet (but more on that later) and ultimately serve as distractions, which is far more important.
Psychological stress, at least in relation to anxiety, is all about obsessive thoughts or actions towards something that we may or may not be able to control.
By offering their distractions, our pets relieve us from the burdens of our own thoughts, and that’s got to be worth something.
They promote productivity
I already discussed how our pets are distractions, and why this is a good thing, but maybe I should take this up a notch.
Pets aren’t just a distraction, they are our responsibility more than anything.
When depressed, we tend to drop into this “basic” state of not doing anything, yet our pets force us to take action and take care of them.
This is actually a big advantage of being an owner over going through therapy.
Sure, it may seem bothersome to you, but pulling you out of your own misery and into action will do you good, more so if you actually fall under a pattern…
They have unconditional care and empathy
Babies get happy and loving regardless of anything that seems to happen to them, they always extend their hand forward and smile regardless of how the other person looks or what he says.
It’s only after growing up and maturing that we become for more judgmental in the way we feel and act.
Although we outgrow our diaper soon enough, animals still possess that much-needed empathy that most humans seem to begin lacking in over the years.
Animals offer that sense of empathy, they will be able to “feel” and “connect” to you on more than one level, it’s much harder to feel truly alone whenever there’s an animal by your side.
That actually applies to both isolation and loneliness.
Animals offer their company, to ensure that you aren’t isolated.
They also offer you their emotional support, which makes it much easier to overcome any negative thoughts about guilt, loneliness, and self-worth.
Instead, they give you love and unconditional loyalty and support – they actually get you (some more than others)
That type of relationship can’t be broken based on what you say, think or do – unless you push them away, they will be by your side (again, some more than others)
That’s gotta mean something, right?
Honestly, pet ownership is great – but it can do only so much
A point that is worth mentioning is how simply having a cat or a dog can help your mental health.
this isn’t about you in the slightest.
Truth is, your pet will stick by your side no matter who you are.
Dogs are known to be a particular case, but you can absorb just as much meaning out of your favorite animals, be they cats, ferrets or maybe even snakes and lizards.
Mental health is subjective after all, whatever does you good – works.
In case you can’t own a pet for whatever reason, or maybe if your own pet isn’t good enough, try looking into therapy.
Animal-Assisted Therapy sessions aren’t very long, and you probably can find professional on the topic around your area with a simple search in google.
Alright, so here’s a quick question I would like you to think about: When was the last time you paid your pet any attention? Do you have a pet at all?
More than one question, I know, but I feel like you really should consider these questions.
Once you have an answer make sure to write it down in the comment section below – I got through every single one of them and I would love to hear what you got to say!
If you have any personal questions you would like to ask me then make sure to send a quick email.
I reply to all of them as quickly as I can and to the best of my ability.