Pets are so much more than just adorable four-legged friends. They give people healthy, playful company that is two-way and gratifying. Plus, they tend to have a positive effect on their owners’ physical and mental health. People who own a pet have lower blood pressure, heart rates and risk of heart disease than people who don’t.
These benefits may come from the increased exercise that playing and walking require, as well as the relaxation benefit of having a steady best friend by your side.
Animal studies also are showing that mental health may be improved by animal assisted interventions used alongside conventional medicine like pet therapy in hospitals. The evidence is still too small to make sweeping conclusions about how animals improve people’s mental health, but those benefits seem to be worth the work it takes to care for them–even if you have a challenging disorder like autism or ADHD.
Science is increasingly backing the idea that social support is a proven antidote for stress, fear, and anxiety. Animals of many types can help calm an individual’s emotions and provide mental benefits on multiple levels.
More research is needed before scientists know exactly how much animal interaction is needed to achieve the best results or why this serves as such a powerful tool for those in need. It’s not surprising at all though when we look at how animals interact with us and the beneficial effects it provides us in return.
One study found that stroking a living creature alleviates stress in people, as it seems to release the hormone oxytocin. In other words, simply petting an animal has a soothing effect on people regardless of whether they like or dislike animals.
In a 2016 study published in the journal Gerontology, elderly people who were given crickets in their cages became less depressed after eight weeks than a control group. The act of caring for an animal seems to make the difference.
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The use of horses in therapy has roots dating back to Europe’s 1860s. Activities like grooming a horse and leading one around a pen have been shown to be beneficial for treatment plans involving children and adolescents experiencing stress-related symptoms, such as PTSD.
Animals are a powerful way to engage people. At an Alzheimer’s-disease facility, when people ate in front of aquariums with brightly colored fish, they ate more and had better nutrition. They were also less prone to pacing, and were more attentive and less lethargic in their movement.
As children have difficulty reading, a trained dog and handler can do wonders for their attitudes and skills. “Their attitudes change and their skills improve,” says Lisa Freeman, director of the Tufts Institute for Human-Animal Interaction.
Researchers also found that children with autism experienced fewer signs of stress when they had animals with them in the classroom. A guinea pig was the most beneficial, but other animals like dogs or cats and even birds could help kids with autism recognize emotions of others and be more social themselves.
Children with autism are often more socially withdrawn. When they have a guinea pig to interact with in the classroom, they both find socializing easier and experience fewer stress and signs of anxiety.