Julianne Power extols the virtues of having pets and investigates the positive impact these fluffy companions can have on our mental health.
In April of this year, the twitter account of NUIG shared snaps of the college’s new therapy dogs, labradors April and Max. The pictures alone were enough to make anyone smile, even us college students in the midst of well-known exam frenzy. There is more to the story than that, however. The gorgeous dogs were granted their own student IDs, attending the library throughout study week, offering students the opportunity to de-stress ahead of the ever-dreaded summer examinations and to spend some time with the college’s newest employees. And this is certainly no new phenomenon; the idea of college therapy dogs has been seen across America for many years, as well as in universities throughout the United Kingdom. Of course, fluffy four-legged friends have long been known to make even the most resolute individuals crack. Just ask my dad who, to begin with, was far from enthusiastic to welcome a dog into the family home, and now has become inseparable from the little guy, or as I like to describe him, my dad’s new favourite child.
Anecdotes aside, the topic of pets, and their potential benefits to mental health, is one that has become widely discussed and heavily supported. According to a survey of pet owners in the USA, carried out by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, 74% of those surveyed reported an improvement in their own mental health due to their pet, while 75% reported the same improvement to be seen in a family member or a friend. This result can be attributed to a variety of factors, including a reduction in psychological stress and an increase of oxytocin levels in the brain. Another example of such research is a fascinating study carried out by researchers Patricia Pendry and Jaymie L. Vandagriff of Washington State University. In this study they divided college students into four groups. The first group were given ten minutes to play with dogs and cats, the second watched this interaction take place, the third simply viewed a slideshow of animal pictures, and the fourth sat in an empty room for the duration. The researchers tested the participants’ cortisol (the hormone secreted in response to stress) levels both pre- and post-study. The results showed a significantly lower cortisol level amongst those who interacted with the animals, highlighting the difference even ten minutes amongst animals has the potential to make. UK charity The Mental Health Foundation carried out a survey of 600 cat owners and non-cat owners in 2011, half of whom reported having a diagnosed mental health issue. 87% of the cat-owners reported that their pet had a positive impact on their mental wellbeing, and 76% stated their pet assisted in their coping better with everyday life. It is possible for me to speak from personal experience, knowing that after a particularly long or taxing day, spending time with my dog alleviates my anxiety and stress almost instantly.
And it is not solely mental health issues for which pets have the potential to help. They can be seen to enrich and add value to the lives of many. For the elderly, particularly in more rural areas, a pet may be the only friendly face seen on a consistent basis, as well as being an encourager of exercise. Mental Health Ireland have also shared research on the idea that people with Alzheimer’s are thought to have fewer anxious outbursts with an animal in the home. Pets, particularly dogs and horses, have often been used in sensory integration activities with autistic children. We cannot forget the incredible work of service animals, who can even be trained to load and unload the washing machine. In Ireland we can also see the talent of the Garda Dog Unit and the Irish Search Dogs, who work alongside their partners in protecting and assisting the citizens of our country.
The healing power of what can be described as the ‘pet-effect,’ or the bond that can become established between pet and owner, and the benefits it can provide, has become a popular topic in recent years, and one which I am sure will continue to grow for years to come. After all, how could anyone resist the imploring eyes of ‘Man’s Best Friend?’