Clearing out my study this weekend I found a glossy leaflet from The British Psychological Society claiming the scientific benefits of having a pet.
It is of course well known that animals in school and at home encourage social skills, but science has come a long way since my school days of having locusts in the biology laboratory, or friends having rats as play mates. We now know about the benefits of having animals around us in much more detail. UCLA health provides a stunning list that promotes the human animal bond:
For Mental Health:
- The simple act of petting animals releases an automatic relaxation response.
- Humans interacting with animals have found that petting the animal promoted the release of serotonin, prolactin and oxytocin- all hormones that can play a part in elevating moods.
- Lowers anxiety and helps people relax.
- Provides comfort.
- Reduces loneliness.
- Increases mental stimulation.
- Assist in recall of memories and help sequence temporal events in patients with head injuries or chronic diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease.
- Can provide an escape or happy distraction.
- Can act as catalysts in the therapy process.
- May help break the ice.
- May reduce the initial resistance that might accompany therapy.
For Physical Health
- Lowers blood pressure and improves cardiovascular health.
- Reduces the amount of medications some people need.
- Breathing slows in those who are anxious.
- Releases many hormones such as Phenylethylamine which has the same effect as chocolate.
- Diminishes overall physical pain.
- Relax more during exercise.
- Participants were motivated, enjoyed the therapy sessions more, and felt the atmosphere of the session was less stressful during Animal-Assisted therapy.
- For Children with Autism
- Many children with autism feel a deep bond with animals and feel that they are able to relate better than humans.
- Children with autism were engaged in significantly greater use of language as well as social interaction win their therapy sessions that incorporated animals compared to standard therapy sessions without them.
With this kind of list what parent can refuse a child’s request to get a dog or cat, or even a lizard?
The BPS article explores the benefits in a slightly broader fashion:
1. Pets are good for you, physically and socially
There’s substantial evidence to support the long-held belief that ‘pets are good for us’. Dr Deborah Wells …says that ‘stroking your pet can lower your heart-rate and blood pressure, and simply being around an animal can bolster mental wellbeing by enhancing self-esteem and perceptions of self-worth’. Dogs can serve as particularly strong social catalysts, improving health indirectly by facilitating interactions with other people. Meeting others on walks, and ‘playdates’, can offer enormous benefits for both pet and owner!
Tip: Cuddle on the sofa and get out and about… it’s good for your pet and for you too.
2. Dogs can help you read
The presence of a friendly dog has been shown to significantly improve the speed and accuracy in which young children complete mental and physical tasks. Sophie Hall says: ‘There is increasing interest in in the value of “reading with dogs” schemes in schools. We don’t know why reading with a dog helps, but it’s thought that the presence of a dog can reduce anxiety, and increase motivation, confidence, engagement and feelings of support.’
Tip: If your child struggles with reading, encourage them to read with you and your dog, if your dog is happy to sit in!
This last point about assisted reading brings me on to how animals help children who are diagnosed with physical and mental health conditions. Therapy dogs have revolutionised family life and even have special status to be allowed into shops, restaurants and medical facilities in many countries.
The Child Mind Institute article retells the experience of one mother with her daughter Caroline, who has autistic tendencies. A trip to the dentist initially failed spectacularly, but when they returned with their therapy dog the session went much more smoothly.
If it is not possible for you to have a pet at home, then taking children to visit rescue places like the Eden Sanctuary, or seeking help through Equine Minds may be helpful. Horses too are great therapists:
“Hippotherapy, derived from the Greek word “hippos” for “horse,” is a treatment strategy used by physical, occupational, and speech and language therapists in a one-to-one treatment session. It may be used to help those from as young as 18 months to adults with developmental delays, brain injuries, learning disabilities, sensory issues, autism and other challenges.
There’s also therapeutic riding, supervised by a certified instructor, in which children work on social, emotional and physical goals as they learn to sit properly in the saddle, use reins to command the horse, and ride at a walk and then a bouncy trot”.
Further benefit comes from children helping with the ownership of animals, it can be a gentle way to explore together how we need to learn about and care for our pets. The BPS article for example shows us that many animals are indeed very intelligent, so it is important to create a stimulating environment at home.
Cats apparently prefer several meals a day that they have to work for – so using puzzle feeders can be useful in explaining to children how to learn about the animal’s natural environment and how to develop the bond between human and animal. Reptiles are far more intelligent than we give them credit for, and this can lead to teaching children to look for the more subtle signs if the animal is suffering.
Most animals have shorter life spans that we humans, carefully handled, we can gently introduce children to expressing emotions around death, we can authentically show our own emotions and model how we handle them, letting our children know that it’s absolutely ok to be really sad.
If it is not possible to own a family pet, there are plenty of volunteer places on the island that would welcome helpers. Free therapy for all!