It's proven! Mental health therapists have discovered that animal-assisted therapy (AAT) increases social interaction and decreases aggression in people with mental disorders. So much so, that sufferers who interact with animals on a regular basis often no longer need medication at all. It's those patients with poor communication skills who are most likely to benefit from participating in AAT programmes, since they find it easier to communicate with others in the presence of animals.
For those who are still not convinced, below are some of the known benefits of having a pet:
Pets can help ease loneliness or isolation. They give us a reason to get up in the morning. They accept us for who we are and don't judge us.
Physical contact is important to our mental health. Stroking and cuddling with a pet is very therapeutic.
Animals improve our mood with their companionship. A pet can provide a reason for living.
Pet owners are more active. The exercise we get from walking, feeding and grooming a pet keeps our minds healthy. We're also likely to laugh and feel more playful when we share our home with a pet.
Routine is beneficial in enhancing emotional stability. Caring for a pet provides a predictable routine and link to reality.
Having a pet improves attention and decreases aggression, anger, stress and anxiety.
Pets can help us relax and forget about our problems for awhile. Gazing at fish in an aquarium is soothing.
For sufferers with more serious disabilities, there are specially-trained psychiatric service dogs, which are usually identified with a cape, tag or harness. These dogs perform specific tasks that mitigate the negative effects of a person's mental illness. For example, a psychiatric service dog might bring patients their medication or lead them to a safe place when they are having a panic attack.
But, for all sufferers, having a pet improves their lives because animals have the power to entrain our attention. And when we are around animals, we become more joyous, communicative, expressive, and calm.
What is certainly true is that, these days, psychiatry and other forms of medicine are too-often bogged-down in biological symptoms and outcomes - therefore less attuned to our social environment. This is a shame because there is so much evidence that social support such as pet-therapy is so helpful in recovering from mental health illness.
One of the biggest challenges mental-health sufferers face is relating to others to get their needs met. Many have difficulty communicating on all levels. Having your own dog is a bridge to developing your communication skills and confidence. Many times, dogs can help reach patients who would otherwise be resistant to therapy. The fundamental change that results from this therapy is that patients are better able to communicate with and relate to others.
Certainly, mental-health sufferers become more animated, more expressive, more spontaneous and less hindered by internal noise when in the presence of their pet.
There's no doubt that the healing touch of petting an animal and being kissed or nuzzled in return establishes a soothing intimacy at a time of loneliness. They also serve as a stimulus to exercise - a key factor in recuperation. At a time when the ill person is feeling disconnected from the world, incapable of his or her normal responsibilities, a pet demonstrates that they are still needed by another and that their presence would be terribly missed.