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How Animals Help Us

It’s well known that the UK is a nation of animal lovers – half of all British households have a pet of some kind, and you only have to glance at social media for a minute or two to be inundated by images of friends’ cats and dogs!

But what is it about animals that we love? Why do we make them part of the family? Humans have to do relatively little in order to form a relationship with an animal, but the benefits are many:

Number one on the list is surely the unconditional love they provide – we can bring them into our life and they repay our care with affection that requires no reciprocation or obligation, with no discrimination, which can be sometimes be difficult to find among their human counterparts. The fact that animals respond to our emotions and seem to enjoy interacting with us as much as we do adds to the feeling of joy, and makes us feel that someone values us.

Pets are free from the complexities of regular social interactions, allowing people to seek comfort without worry of rejection or judgement. They can even help you to cultivate social skills and improve your ability to communicate with other people. This boosts self-esteem and a sense of self-worth, and provides a real connection that can be a source of strength in times of distress or crisis.

This connection also offers companionship that helps to combat loneliness and isolation – pets can be someone to talk to, to confide in. They don’t ask difficult questions or answer back, and this can be a relief when you just crave someone who will listen.

Animals can play a significant role in reducing anxiety by acting as distraction from distressing circumstances and providing comfort – the feeling of having a purring cat sat on your lap is soothing to both you and the cat! Research has shown the spending time with an animal can release neurotransmitters that suppress anxiety and boost mood.[1]

The daily routine that animals require (feeding, exercise, grooming etc) can add structure to your day, giving you a reason to be present and active every day, providing a sense of purpose and focus and the opportunity to improve your own self-care skills. A pet that requires regular exercise, such as a dog that needs daily walks, can increase your levels of physical activity, which can in turn boost mood, reduce anxiety and improve overall health.

Animals can also provide a service for specific conditions – for example, the routine and structure of having a dog, along with the opportunity to expend excess energy, may help those with ADHD. Assistance dogs, such a hearing or seeing dogs, therapy dogs or emotional support animals also provide their owners with something that they cannot get from other methods. We increasingly see therapy animals in care homes, educational settings, and mental health facilities due to the known calming and anxiety-reducing effects of being around animals. They can also reduce stress and make scary or intimidating environments seem friendlier and more manageable.

But what if you can’t have a pet of your own? It’s a big commitment, both emotionally and financially, and isn’t suitable for everyone. But there are other options open to you if you think animals would be a source of comfort and calm that might benefit you. The simplest is to spend time with friends’ pets, offering to look after them or taking their dog for a walk. You could also sign up as a house sitter to look after people’s pets while they’re on holiday.

Alternatively, you could try volunteering at a local cat and dog home or other animal rescue centres. There may also be riding centres, animal sanctuaries or petting zoos near you that would welcome an extra pair of hands.

However you get your fix, time spent in the presence of an animal is likely to boost your feelings of contentment, and give you that warm cosy feeling.

[1] Alexander AL. The perceptions of animal therapy in the College of Nursing. [Online.] University of Arizona; 2017. handle/10150/624899 (accessed March 2020).

Photo by Eric Ward on Unsplash

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