Pet Owners May Enjoy Better Mental Well-Being

Anyone who owns or has owned a pet can provide anecdotal accounts of how interacting with their companion animals helped in times of crisis or emotional upheaval, and some studies suggest these benefits are more than just the subjective claims of animal lovers.

If you work with patients suffering from mental illnesses, it’s important to take note of the potential positive effects of animal companionship on symptoms, mood and social health.

How Do Pets Improve Mental Health?

Many benefits are attributed to owning a pet and interacting with domesticated animals, including:

  • Receiving unconditional love and support
  • Increased social interaction
  • A stronger feeling of meaning and purpose in life
  • More frequent physical activity
  • More time spent outdoors, leading to increased levels of vitamin D
  • Reduced stress from petting and grooming
  • Distraction from mental health symptoms
  • Better focus on the present
  • Establishment of a routine involving the care of another living being

Relief from a sense of loneliness

Owning a pet can also encourage playful behaviors and inspire mental health patients to engage in lighthearted activities.

What Does the Science Say?
It’s one thing to consider the claims of pet owners when it comes to the benefits of spending time with their furry friends, but a look at available scientific studies is required to know if interacting with animals truly has positive effects on mental health.

A brief review of the science shows:

  • One 10-month prospective study demonstrated getting a new cat or dog improved physical health and encouraged positive behaviors, such as increased physical activity, which has been shown to benefit mental well-being.
  • A review of 69 studies revealed some possible positive effects of human-animal interaction on stress hormones, pain management, aggression, interpersonal relationships, and levels of fear and anxiety.
  • Another review of 17 studies suggested a correlation between pet ownership and benefits for mental health patients, including emotional support, symptom management and the strong connections established with companion animals.

The Pet Ownership Prescription
In light of what these and other studies suggest, it’s now possible for licensed mental health practitioners (LMHPs) to provide patients with letters designating their companion animals as “emotional support animals” (ESAs). These animals require no special training or certification and are subject to different laws and regulations than service animals.

An ESA may be suggested for patients with:

  • Anxiety Debilitating fears or phobias
  • Depression
  • Mood disorders
  • Panic disorders
  • Personality disorders

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Should you choose to offer ESA letters to your patients, make sure they understand the laws they must follow as ESA owners and the reasonable accommodations these animals are given.

Because the benefits of having a companion animal are supported by emerging science and strong anecdotal evidence, it may be prudent to consider the positive outcomes your mental health patients may experience from the company and support of pets. From prompting more physical activity to providing a “willing ear” in times of emotional distress, animals can help those suffering from common mental conditions enjoy an improved quality of life.