Friday, 6 February 2015

Animals and wellbeing – part one

Hands up, pet owners – how many of you think that your furry friend has a positive impact on your life...?
I’d be surprised if there weren’t a whole bunch of people staring at their screens with their hands in the air right now. Because it’s true – from getting us out of the house for a bit of exercise, to making us feel better when we’re down, our pets definitely have the ability to enrich our lives and improve our wellbeing.

Over the next few months we’re going to take a look at the various benefits our interactions with the animal world have on our general wellbeing. This month, the focus is on animals and our mental health.

Animals and mental wellbeing 

If you’ve ever felt low or upset, and then had a cat come and sit on your lap and purr, or a dog rest his head on your leg for you to scratch his ears, you probably already know the amazing effect that animals can have on our mood. Their very presence offers comfort, and they always seem to know when we need them most – even before we do!

There are hundreds of ways animals help our mental wellbeing day-to-day. My husband and I are constantly talking about our two cats: watching them, playing with them, and laughing at their antics. After a hard or tiring day at work, I know I'll walk through my front door to find James Cat rolling around waiting for me, with Leonard not far away (often in my husband's lap!) Five minutes talking to, cuddling, and playing with them is enough to have me wondering what I was so grumpy about. Their upbeat attitude is infectious.

Organisations such as Pets as Therapy have been telling us this since the early eighties. Through visits to hospitals, hospices, nursing and care homes, and special needs schools, the charity's volunteers and their pets have helped many people to feel better about themselves, and the world around them.

For the elderly, the presence of an animal can help them feel less isolated, and keep them active, both mentally and physically, and offers a sense of security and companionship. This article describes the ways in which therapy animals can help people with dementia, indicating that they recognize an animal in the environment as friendly and non-threatening. When they have a pet with them, studies show they display more interactive behaviour – animals bring us out of ourselves. 

This is also true of people living with mental illness. The State Hospital in Scotland has many animals on-site for inpatients to visit, work with and care for, as well as regular visits from therapy assistance animals. It released a very insightful article about the benefits this has had on residents.

Aileen Galt, a rehabilitation Instructor at the centre, says “Bonding with animals is often much easier than getting people to like and trust you, so animals-as-therapy is a great first step in the rehabilitation process.”

The sense of trust, friendship and responsibility that people gain from interactions with animals is invaluable – perhaps even life-saving. Marion Janner, Director of Star Wards and contributor to My Dog, my Friend, is in no doubt about the benefits that her dog, Buddy, has had on her life. If feeling overwhelmed when out and about (in Buddy's words) “Marion … loves loves loves me and wouldn't put me in danger. So she somehow manages to stagger on and get me across streets and back home nice and safely.” (p27, My Dog, my Friend)

Buddy's presence is a comfort and a safeguard: Marion's love for her friend keeps them both safe, and allows Marion the freedom to lead her life, knowing that she has Buddy supportively trotting along beside her.

They cheer us up, they bring us out of ourselves, they keep us calm and give us a reason to carry on. They make us feel normal, safe and loved, and they do it all with a simple wag of the tail, an understanding gaze, and a gentle nuzzle. Yes, animals are an incredible asset to our mental wellbeing, because they're always there for us, and always will be. And there's great comfort in that thought.

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