Mental Health Benefits of Companion Animals & Pets

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Strong links exist between interacting with animals and experiencing a range of observable physical and mental health benefits. In a time when stressors in our personal, communal, and professional lives can reach unprecedented volumes, it’s never been more important to keep tabs on your health. Having a companion animal or pet in your life is an effective way to do that.

The Mental Health Benefits of Animals

Studies have shown that animals provide significant tangible benefits for people in a wide variety of demographics and settings. College students, veterans, sufferers of PTSD, individuals with mental health problems, and more have all experienced the positive effects of owning pets or service animals, or working with companion animals in therapeutic provision settings.

Dogs are more commonly utilized in therapeutic settings than any other type of animal because of their temperaments, trainability, and range of sizes and abilities. Service animals, which receive rigorous training and are often certified specifically to help people with physical or health needs, are almost always canines. However, a wide range of animals and pets can make effective companion animals and create significant benefits for those that experience mental health needs. These include cats, miniature horses, pot-bellied pigs, smaller pets including hamsters and guinea pigs, and more.

Companion Animals: A Positive Coping Strategy

Taking proactive steps to develop tools and safeguards for protecting your mental health is more important than ever, especially in the face of the continuing effects of the COVID pandemic and increasingly divisive political and societal climates. Considering a pet or regular interaction with an animal can be an effective addition to your mental health routine.

Individuals who suffer from certain mental health diagnoses and psychiatric disorders experience high levels of positive effects from animal interactions, especially with companion or therapy dogs. “Patients diagnosed with a range of issues, such as depression, bipolar disorder, autism, ADHD, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and Alzheimer's disease, can benefit from experiencing interactions with therapy dogs and other companion animals.”

Companion Animals for Managing Anxiety & Trauma

Another area where companion and support animals can create effective interventions is in trauma therapy. Treating the effects of trauma takes time and intentionality. Trauma can be caused by a large number of occurrences and experiences and can create significant, life-altering symptoms. Spending time around companion animals and engaging in Human-Animal Interaction (HAI) therapy has been shown to decrease severity of these symptoms for trauma sufferers, as well as help them increase their emotional control and regulation.

An Added Benefit: Comfort Animals Get Support From Mental Health Laws

Mental health legislation at both the Federal and State levels affect how, where, and when animals can be employed to provide emotional support. Animals that are certified as “service animals” are allowed in spaces that would otherwise be off-limits to pets and other domestic animals. Service animals can include those that are specifically trained to detect and calm anxiety attacks in PTSD sufferers.

Dogs or other animals that have been trained as “comfort animals” don’t have the same level of access or accommodation as those that have been certified as “service animals” - this is an important distinction to recognize when considering having your pet certified as a service, companion, or emotional support animal (or newly obtaining a support animal). These statuses may make things like having your companion animal with you in public, during transit on public vehicles or on airplanes, or remain with you in medical facilities possible. A number of resources exist to help you determine what rules and regulations apply for your situation and in your State to help you make an informed decision about what type of certification and animal would best help your situation.

Animals can provide significant benefits and support for individuals who experience a wide range of mental health difficulties or illnesses. If you or someone you care for or love needs support in caring for their mental health, recovering from trauma, or managing a psychiatric or psychological condition, consider animal-assisted therapy or obtaining a companion or service animal. The helpful effects of animal interaction can be significant and long-lasting for a wide range of mental health conditions and concerns.

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