Humankind’s relationship with animals goes as far back as recorded history. Evidence of the earliest known domesticated breed of dogs, the mastiff, dates back to 6th Century BC. Dogs have fought gladiators, lions, elephants and bears in ancient times. In fact, the mastiff was originally bred as a war-dog. But time gradually transformed the relationship of man and dog to one of love and family. Today, dogs have a place by our side. They live inside our homes, eat with us and even sleep with us. We form as close bonds with them as with any family member. We all know they make us feel happy. I myself have anecdotal evidence of a friend whose acute PTSD rendered him incapable of social interaction. He would confine himself to his room, living his life through the lens of his Frontier online deals. However, a therapy dog, and some care soon helped him to gain some semblance of social normality. It was a very visible and noticeable change. And now, pets are scientifically acknowledged as being a complementary psychiatric support system. Science has the evidence to back it.
How science supports pets for mental health
A highly anticipated study conducted by the Human-Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI) has shown the benefits of animal companionship. HABRI aims to bring to the mainstream acceptance of the scientific mutual benefits of a human-animal bond. This particular study was also published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. The study, carried out on 141 military veterans suffering from PTSD, examined empirical results of having a trained service dog. The results were astonishing. The study showed:
- Lower symptoms of PTSD
- Lower depression levels
- Higher satisfaction levels
- Lower social isolation
- Higher overall mental wellbeing
- Higher feelings of companionship
- More resilience towards recovery
- Greater ability to socialize
PTSD affects three out of ten post-9/11 veterans with more than twenty suicides per day. The results underscore the positive impact pets specifically dogs have, on mental wellbeing. The study recommends adding service animals to the usual care administered to PTSD patients for better results.
How are Pets Good for Us?
Other than the obvious emotional connection, there are significant benefits of animal companionship. There are numerous peer-reviewed studies that point towards some of these benefits, including:
- Service dogs can help alleviate PTSD, especially in veterans
- Pets assist owners to manage their feelings
- Pets provide a significant distraction from stress
- Therapy dogs help reduce stress
Pets play a very therapeutic function in our lives. Especially for people suffering from mental illness, the multi-faceted benefits of animal companionship are significant. While further research is required to test the extent and nature of the human-animal relationship, evidence does seem compelling.
Pets help manage Mental Illness
If you ask, any pet owner will be happy to tell you that their pets are sources of comfort and relief during stressful times. The same may be especially true for people suffering from serious mental illnesses. People with bipolar disorder or even schizophrenia often give their animal companions the credit for helping them manage their illness. Most people with serious mental illnesses tend to isolate themselves from most social interaction and stay at home. Some even have limited contact with the healthcare system. This effectively means they are out there, dealing with their problems on their own. Its at times like these that the true value of animal companionship can be appreciated.
Pets and long-term Mental Illness
People with long-term mental health issues consider their pets to be part of their social network. Many state that they received emotional support from pets that wasn’t available with friends and family. Many even place their pets in a central, important position in their social interactions. The reason behind this is as simple as it is heartbreaking. With the stigma associated with mental illness, many patients see their social circle shrinking. Some even alienate or find themselves alienated from people they considered close. A pet’s position as an unconditional support even during the worst of times is obvious here. For many people pets are more than just emotional support or companions. Even in cases of extreme psychosis, pets have been known to distract the person from his or her suffering. Simultaneously, having to care for pets helps the sufferer to not withdraw completely from real life.
As a pet lover, I can vouch for the special bond between humans and animals. That they are part of the family has been gaining traction for some years now. That they are more than just a cute addition to the family is something new. I want to see a future where pets are accepted as a support system and their importance is acknowledged. A future where pet-friendly offices, restaurants and spaces are as popular as Frontier FiOS internet. Most importantly, a future where people with mental illness get the care they deserve.