Why spending time with animals is good for your health

Animals have a long history of supporting vulnerable members of society, from Guide Dogs for the Blind to Medical Detection Dogs. But it’s not just people with sight problems or life-threatening health conditions that can benefit from owning a pet.

A recent study by the Centre for Agriculture and Biosciences International revealed that pet ownership could save the NHS up to £2.45 billion a year by reducing GP visits thanks to its mental and physical health benefits, which include illness prevention and boosting overall wellbeing.

The Mental Health Foundation has reported that just stroking, sitting next to or playing with a pet relaxes and calms the mind.

“Taking care of and spending time with a pet is a great way to give yourself some headspace to deal with life’s setbacks and challenges,” says Eugene Farrell, who is a mental health expert at AXA PPP Healthcare

“Walking your dog – or even borrowing one from a neighbour or local animal rescue centre – can do wonders for your wellbeing as it combines moderate exercise with taking a break from work or household chores and getting some fresh air. Similarly, caring for other types of pets can help us take time out of our busy schedules which can help us gain perspective and recharge our batteries.”

Here are AXA PPP Healthcare’s five top reasons why living with pets is good for us:

1.       Unconditional love. However bad your day’s been, you’ll have someone who depends on you to shower you with affection. The British Medical Journal believes the emotional bond between owner and pet can be as intense as that in many human relationships and may confer similar psychological benefits.

2.       Routine. The responsibilities that come with owning a pet can give your day purpose, reward and a sense of achievement. Regular routines and rituals are said to help forge discipline, help energy management and support mental space. The Dogs Trust also highlights that a good routine is vital for your dog’s wellbeing too.

3.       Lower risk of heart disease.Owning a pet can reduce your risk of developing heart disease. It may be that dog owners naturally do more exercise, but pets also play a role in providing social support, encouraging you to stick with a new habit or adopting a healthy behaviour. Owning a cat has also been associated with a reduced rate of dying from cardiovascular disease (CVD) and stroke, due to the stress-relieving effects of animal companionship.

4.       Socialising. Pets can act as a social icebreaker between strangers, or as a catalyst for social interaction. Research suggests that dog walkers experience significantly higher social capital (interactions and relationships) than non-dog walkers.

5.       Boost to mental wellbeing. Studies have found that dog owners are less likely to suffer from depression than those without pets and ownership can reduce stress and anxiety levels. Playing with a dog or cat can elevate levels of serotonin and dopamine, which calm and relax.

Psychologist Dr Meg Arroll, who works with Healthspan Pet Health, echoes these sentiments. She says pets can also help to reduce blood pressure and keep us active, while pet therapy reduces anxiety in people with mental health conditions.

She says interacting with an animal can reduce our perception of pain and even benefit children in hospital. She points out that pets are also a good way to combat loneliness and isolation in older people.

“Interacting, or even simply being in the presence of animals can have a calming effect. This is because we as humans are naturally drawn to other living things for our survival.

“Spending time with animals and caring for them can make us feel good. But pet therapy can also help people with acute psychiatric conditions such as anxiety and eating disorders, psychosis and mood disorder

“A study with 230 patients who were in hospital with mental health disorders found that just a single pet therapy session reduced anxiety.

“In children and adolescents with mental health conditions, pet therapy improved young people’s day-to-day functioning and helped them get back into school.

“Spending time in hospital as a child can be tough for both children and their families so it’s important that some semblance of normality is included in hospital life.

“Researchers have looked at children with chronic disorders, such as cancer, cystic fibrosis, diabetes, and organ transplant, who were visited once a week in hospital by dogs. This pet therapy helped the children to focus less on being ill and offer some relief from life in hospital.

“Isolation is a growing and serious problem for older people. As we live longer and rarely in inter-generational homes with other relatives, loneliness and depression has become a significant issue for older people and for us as a society.

“A small study looking at 15 people with terminal illness found that animals also helped patients in the final stages of life.

“After two visits, patients said they felt less anxious and that their level of despair had decreased. The animals also seemed to help these patients move through the stages of death by allowing them to let go of past relationships.

“Therefore, for some people with a terminal illness, offering time with animals may be an important part of their end-of-life care.”

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