“Any glimpse into the life of an animal quickens our own and makes it so much larger and better in every way.” – John Muir
Within the last decade or so pets have gone from trivial fixtures of a home to essential and beloved members of the family; often sharing our experiences, our meals, and even our beds. Besides being the muses behind our most-liked social media posts, what other benefits do our four-legged family members offer us? And more importantly, what benefits do our pets provide for our mental health?
If you are a pet parent, or know a pet parent, you have probably heard the phrase my dog makes me so happy after a long day, or my cat is my best friend. While it may seem like an exaggeration, there is actually a scientific explanation behind these feelings. Research has shown the connection we share with our pets causes our brains to release the hormone oxytocin, better known as “the cuddle hormone”. Originally reserved to describe the bond mothers have with their children, scientists are now discovering that pet owners (and the pets themselves) experience this intense bond as well. Our connections with our pets alter our brains, causing us to feel happier.
This connection between people and their pets has led to a significant shift in the therapeutic world, it has led to the introduction of emotional support animals. Emotional support animals (or ESAs) provide additional assistance for individuals with diagnoses such as anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Emotional support animals allow for a sense of comfort for those with anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), making it easier to be in certain places or to complete certain tasks which may be triggering. Although not everyone qualifies for an emotional support animal, our pets provide similar support in our everyday lives and can contribute to improvements in a person’s mental health. Our pets offer us companionship and a sense of purpose as well as a sense of structure and routine; which is easy to lose in our fast paced lives. Pets can act as alarm clocks for their families, reminding them when it is time to complete daily tasks such as waking up, exercising, eating meals, and going to sleep.
Certain pets provide their families with specific health benefits, for both their mental and physical health. Dogs require their parents and families to engage in physical activity on a daily basis, whether for pleasure or out of necessity. Taking a dog on a daily walk is not only an effective way to tire them out and keep them in good physical shape; it also gives the people in their lives the opportunity to get out of the house and experience the benefits of fresh air and daily exercise, which can positively alter a person’s mood. In addition to working our physical muscles our pets give us the opportunity to exercise our social muscles. Dog friendly restaurants, sporting events, and dog parks have encouraged dog owners to have their best friends accompany them on their outings, often acting as great conversation starters! Cat cafes also provide people the opportunity to socialize while petting and possibly adopting local cats. Pets can give their family members confidence in social situations and naturally lead to conversations with others.
Our pets enrich our lives in so many ways by providing benefits to our mental health. On the surface our pets act as companions, making our mundane routines more enjoyable, but they offer us much more. The relationships we have with our pets can alter the chemistry of our brains causing us to feel happier, connected, and secure. Emotional support animals have allowed those in the psychology world to view pets on a more influential level, acting as important and necessary tools for successful integration into society for those with diagnoses such as anxiety and post traumatic stress disorder. Pets can serve as catalyst to break out of our comfort zones and engage in activities we previously may not have had the desire or courage to pursue such as attending social events or consistently exercising. So the next time you are rewarding your cat or dog with a treat, you may want to give them an extra as a thank you for all they do for you!
Corrine Barbara, MA, LPC is a psychotherapist at Lukin Center Psychotherapy specializing in providing therapy to children, adolescents, and adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), as well as treating anxiety and depression.
In order to help her clients achieve their personal goals, Corrine offers a supportive environment and an individualized approach to therapy. She draws from cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), psychodynamic, mindfulness-based, and play therapy techniques. Corrine has extensive experience providing individual, family, and group therapy to clients with various mental health difficulties. She primarily works with children, adolescents, and young adults struggling with anxiety, depression, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and life transitions, both in outpatient settings and supportive housing environments. She also has extensive experience working with people on the autism spectrum, including facilitating social skills groups and community outreach programs for children, adolescents, and young adults with ASD. Corrine earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology from Seton Hall University and her master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling from Montclair State University.
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