Why having a pet could be great for your mental health

by Sarah Graham
Tuesday 18 November 2014
137 10176

The UK is a nation of animal lovers, with an estimated 13 million households having pets. Many of us know the happiness and companionship that pets can bring, but study after study has also shown that pets can have real benefits for your mental health. We asked four RSCPP therapists why pets are so good at keeping you mentally healthy.

 

Routine

Registered Psychodynamic Psychotherapist Paulo Camara says: "I find that pets are extremely useful to people's development, as they help you relate to and care for others. You don't need to be depressed or have a mental health condition to benefit from having pets - however, pets can be very beneficial in helping people living with these conditions."

The routine involved in having to get up, feed and care for your pet can give structure and purpose to your day even when you're feeling most low.

Accredited and Registered Counsellor and Psychotherapist Kate Palmer says: "Dogs, in particular, offer you unconditional acceptance and love. But you also have to care for them - to get out and give them a walk, to make sure they are fed and healthy, which can take the focus off your own problems."

Paulo adds: "The 'duty of care' that a pet requires from their owners makes you get out of bed even when you don't feel like it, for example if you're depressed." 

 

Fresh air and exercise

Besides giving you a routine, keeping a dog as a pet can also ensure you get plenty of fresh air and exercise, which are both proven to have mental health benefits of their own.

Paulo says: "Walking a dog may allow you to get out of your home, breathe fresh air, meet other people, have some exercise and perhaps meet other dogs." Getting 30 minutes of moderate exercise five times a week gives you a natural energy boost and can lower tension, stress, frustration and mental fatigue, as well as providing a sense of achievement.

 

Communication and companionship

When it comes to talking about your problems, there's often no better listener than your beloved pet. "Pets like dogs and parrots are very sensitive and they pick up on your mood or state of mind," Paulo says. "There is a lot of communication that goes on between pets and their owners, which can be crucial when you feel depressed and communicating with people may be hard." He adds: "Having a pet is good for keeping you company and combating loneliness.

Children may find pets particularly comforting in times of need. Accredited and Registered Counsellor and Psychotherapist Jim Bond says: "I work with children and young people, and often notice that pets offer the unconditional 'listening' that children value. By being present, the pet provides soothing and can also 'hear' what you have to say without judgement."

Likewise, Kate says: "I know a young autistic boy who talks more to his dog about how he is feeling than to anyone else."

 

Learning to deal with grief

Having a pet during childhood may also be an effective way for children to learn how to cope with loss and bereavement. "People who had pets as children may deal with loss later in life," says Paulo. "I'm not saying that loss is easy - on the contrary, the loss of a pet can be a very traumatic experience for a child or an adult, but it helps us deal with our own mortality and process loss."

 

Healthier attitudes towards life

Finally, Accredited Counsellor and Psychotherapist Jaimie Cahlil says: "Our pets are available to us as teachers, who model a simple, healthy attitude towards life. You may notice how your pet is swiftly alert and poised for action the instant they pick up any threat to their safety and well being, and how, as soon as the presenting uncertainty or danger is gone, they relax!"

He adds: "No creature - other than ourselves - uses up precious energy worrying in advance about what might or might not happen in the future. Our pets live in the present. When you learn to return to the present moment, whenever there is nothing urgent you need to attend to, then your anxieties will lessen as you relax."


Finding support


If you are concerned about the issues raised in this article then you may like to read about finding the right therapist for you. If this route is not appropriate for you, your GP can assess you and direct you towards support.

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Updated 24 November 2014