2nd October 2020, 15:30
Today, whilst animals such as dogs are still used in physically supportive roles under various guises, they are more often used to give a unique form of companionship that provides emotional and mental support to their owners. The benefits of pet ownership are many but can be difficult to quantify scientifically.
One aspect that pets can help with is social interaction as loosely termed ‘social catalysts.’ What this means is that certain pets can help spur social interactions with other people and hence alleviate some of the symptoms of social isolation. Even for those of us who are not necessarily experiencing loneliness, pet ownership can be a way to meet new people and form new social networks. A typical example might simply be pet owners who meet in the park whilst walking their dogs, strike up a conversation and become friends, perhaps even meeting up in other social situations.
But pets can also provide other, direct social benefits in the form of companionship. Whilst this should not be mistaken as being a replacement for human company, it can have some similar benefits. This is particularly so with mental health. In fact, there are even some advantages of pet-owner relationships. Typically these relationships are more stable, and less prone to many of the social complexities that human relationships can have. Because of their relative simplicity, they can engender fewer of the anxieties than human relationships sometimes can.
Pets have been shown to be particularly effective in providing companionship and improving mental health resilience in the wake of bereavement, a serious illness or a traumatic event. In fact, there is a growing acceptance of the idea of ‘therapy animals.’ These go beyond the physically enabling duties associated with say, guide dogs and are intended to provide comfort for those with particular mental conditions.
There are negative aspects of pet ownership that should not be entirely discounted, even if one could argue that these are unavoidable parts of the human experience; with or without a pet. One simple fact is that, due to typically shorter lifespans, most owners will have to experience the grief of losing a pet at some point - a not inconsiderable event considering that up to 9 in 10 pet owners regard them as being ‘valued members of the family.’
There are also considerations for physical health which can, in turn, have knock-on effects for mental health. Potential allergies are sometimes a concern, but especially amongst older pet owners, there can be a reticence to report symptoms to doctors for fear of being hospitalised and leaving pets alone and vulnerable.
The general consensus, however, would seem to be that pets can offer a welcome boost for our mental health. Although human interactions help bolster our emotional resilience, pets are typically associated with a higher quality of life. What this means is that, whilst a qualified psychologist and a well functioning support network can engender positive mental health in the long term, having a pet can be something that helps us feel better in our everyday lives. All in all, it's clear that the benefits of having some of mankind’s best and fluffiest friends go well beyond their cuteness.