How Animals Can Effect Human Mental Health and Wellbeing

Pet lovers worldwide can vouch for how much an animal can provide endless affection and happiness to their lives. The amount of joy and unconditional love that animals bring to pet lovers also extends to the “toughest” individuals. 

New and emerging in the mental health field are emotional support animals, also known as ESA’s, serving great benefits for those struggling with mental illness.  The effect of animals on human health and wellbeing  Sigmund Freud, a founder of psychotherapy, often utilized his chow-chow dog Jofi in therapy sessions with specific clients. 

Many people can ponder the question, well why is this? Essentially, a person experiences an increase in their “happy” hormones when around fluffy and cute animals. Lets explore the relationship between mental health and animals. 

What is the Difference Between an Emotional Support Animal and Service Dog?

Commonly people might have been using these terms interchangeably, but there is a clear difference to be noted. A service dog is defined as a trained dog to help support, assist, and guide an individual with a disability. The different disabilities that could be present can be physical, intellectual, sensory, or mental. 

The Americans with Disabilities Act defines service dogs or service animals guiding the blind and are trained to assist persons with disabilities and perform everyday tasks. The service animals can perform different tasks: pressing an elevator button, alerting the individual to various sounds, pulling a wheelchair, retrieving dropped items, and reminding the person to take medication. 

In comparison to service animals, emotional support animals (ESA’s) can be a broader range of animals involved. Although dogs are still quite common, cats and reptiles have also been known to be identified as ESA’s as well. The main goal of an emotional support animal is to provide a therapeutic effect to the owner through companionship. Comfort is offered to people with mental illness through the emotional support and connection they build with their desired animal of choice. 

Mental Health Benefits of an Emotional Support Animal

Four major mental illnesses are most known for using emotional support animals in efforts to seek comfort from symptoms present for them. 

How pets can help you make healthy lifestyle changes

Caring for a pet can help you develop healthy lifestyle changes.  Building a healthy lifestyle can ease and manage symptoms of depression, anxiety, stress, and more. Some health lifestyle changes that come with owning a pet include:

Start exercising. Taking your dog for a hike or a stroll through the park is a way to create a fit and healthy lifestyle that includes daily exercise. It can double as a mental escape and a fun exercise with you and your pet. Studies have also shown that dog owners are more likely to meet their exercise requirements on a daily basis. 

Get a companion. Having a companion can help prevent the feeling of isolation and loneliness that trigger symptoms of depression. Caring for an animal can help you feel wanted and needed.  Not to mention it can take your focus away from negative aspects of your life.  

Meet new people. If you have social anxiety or fear meeting new people, having a pet can help break the ice with new friends. Dog owners often stop and talk with others while walking or at a dog park. 

Reduce anxiety. The company of an animal can help reduce anxiety and build your self-esteem.  While you might be stuck focusing on the past or thinking about the future, animals live in the moment and can help you become more mindful about living in the present.  

Healing Specific Phobias such as Agoraphobia or Aerophobia

Some people find it excruciatingly difficult to leave their house or fly on an airplane. During an individual’s flight, they could help relieve and decrease their anxiety symptoms by having an emotional support animal accompanying them. While overwhelming emotions might become distressing, hugging or holding their pet can reduce their situation overall. If a person has difficulty being in open or crowded places or where escape is harrowing, having support from their ESA can be beneficial in improving withdrawal or isolation from others due to irrational fears. 

Working in Conjunction with Other Forms of Treatment

The usage of emotional support animals has caught the attention in the mental health field, with therapists and counselors becoming aware of the combination with other forms of treatment to help overcome mental illness. A standard treatment it is linked to is cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), which focuses on addressing how our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are all interconnected with one another. Pets can be utilized for mindfulness techniques, finding a sense of purpose, and encouraging people to spend more time outside. 

Having the ability to stabilize intense emotions can be an additional benefit of having an ESA. Pet owners have shared that even after a long day at work, coming home and seeing their animal can help reduce such intense emotions. 

Who Can Benefit the Most from Emotional Support Animals?

Receiving emotional comfort is an essential factor in why people need ESA’s. The turmoil that comes with mental health challenges can be destructive to one’s daily life. Below is a list of those who can benefit the most from having an ESA in their life.

  • Children and Teens: Younger adolescents who have an increased risk of developing depression and other mental health conditions can benefit from ESA’s to establish a sense of companionship, responsibility, and positive emotional response.
  • Psychiatric Patients: Studies have found that patients diagnosed with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, after ten weeks of CBT and having an ESA, have an improved quality of life, better motivation, and are more productive. 
  • War Veterans and Active-Duty Soldiers: ESA’s have helped these individuals with sleeping patterns, parenting skills, and lower startle rooted in PTSD. The presence of their animal makes the owner feel safe and realize they are no longer in a threatening situation. 
  • University Students: There is a Fair Housing Act that mandates the allowance of college students housing their ESA’s in their dorms with them. Due to possible depression, being away from their families, and high stress from school, ESA’s can help cope emotionally and mentally.