How can animal assisted/ pet therapy help our mental health?

Animal assisted or pet therapy can be vital in helping with the healing of many mental health conditions. Animals can interact with and help humans who are struggling with conditions such as anxiety and depression, through a kind and caring manner and helping motivate them to get exercise or have something to get up for. Indeed, in my research I spoke to many online who told me that their animal had saved their life by preventing them from self harming or taking their own life. For lots of people, animals are a therapeutic lifeline.

Owning a cat can boost wellbeing

In 2011, the Mental Health Foundation together with Cats Protection ran a survey of 600 Cat and non cat owning respondents. It found that 87% of people who owned a cat felt it had a positive impact on their wellbeing. 76% found that they could cope with lifes challenges a lot better due to having a feline friend. Half felt their presence and companionship was important to them and found it calming.

Cat Jarvis from Cats Protection said to us: “These findings tell us what cat lovers have known for years – cats are not just great company, low maintenance and independent but they are actually very good for you. Each year we receive hundreds of entries into our National Cat Awards and it’s incredible how many of these credit their pet cat with enhancing their mental health in some way.

From cats who have supported their owners through depression, anxiety or PTSD, to cats who have been a constant companion in times of loneliness, or even given people a reason to keep going when they didn’t think they could, it’s so hear-warming to hear how cats support and enhance their owners’ wellbeing..”

As Becca on our Twitter agrees with this and has commented, ‘My cat is my emotional support animal. When I have had panic attacks in the past, my husband would sit my cat on my lap and it helped with grounding (his purring, touching his fur) I always highly recommend animals when dealing with a mental illness! ‘

Cats can be very useful as a therapeutic support and also in animal assisted therapy. This is where a human therapist enlists the support of an animal to aid therapeutic outcomes.

What is animal therapy and how can it help?

We spoke to vet Clare Hamilton, director of a pet referral hospital in High Wycombe about animal assisted therapy and asked how animals can help our mental health.

Clare says, ‘ Humans and animals have such a powerful bond between one another. Studies have shown that those with dogs lead happier and healthier lifestyles. Dogs help to promote a healthy lifestyle through the need for regular walks. Through exercise endorphins, which are 'feel good hormones', are released into the body. These endorphins interact with the receptors in your brain and create a positive feeling in the body which in turn can help reduce stress.

Cats also offer comfort. Research has shown that purring has a relaxing effect on humans. Purrs fluctuate between 20-140 Hz, a frequency range which is calming and reduces blood pressure. The simple act of petting an animal can have calming effects on the body. This allows both the pet and owner to relax their minds and bodies. Animals also provide a sense of companionship and value. By caring for an animal you are giving yourself a sense of purpose and belonging.’

Clare particularly recommends the use of therapy dogs which can help reduce anxiety and depression, alongside fatigue. They are used to help the elderly in old peoples homes and special needs schools to have something happy to look forward to, preventing isolation. They can also be used for university students and people of any age with mental health issues through private therapists. Other forms of animal assisted therapy include horses (equine therapy) and birds.

A therapist, Victoria Leeson explains a bit further about the assisted therapy process and how her clients have found dogs to be beneficial.

‘When a clients resources or human relationships are limited I have found that the presence of animals/pets can have a profound effect on their recovery. I have recently worked with three clients who have brought dogs into their lives - by either fostering or buying - in the hope that this would have a positive effect on their mental well-being. In all of my clients experiences the presence of their dogs has helped them to increase their activity levels, reduce their social isolation and had a number of psychological and physiological benefits.

Clients report feeling calmer and more relaxed in their pets presence as well as reported an increase in mood. Clients have also told me they feel more motivated to practice their own self care so they are then able to care for their pet. In return the unconditional love they experience from their pets allows them to feel cared for also. The progress clients have made in terms of their recovery from trauma has always benefitted from the presence of a dog in their lives and at times, gained more momentum as they have something to focus on and recover for.’

Animals are therefore helpful in aiding mental health recovery, however it must be stated that if you are unable to care for an animal as well as yourself that this could be a trigger .

How do dogs help as therapy in the UK?

We spoke to the Priory Hospital Bristol and to psychotherapist Daniel Fryer who has been pioneering an animal assisted therapy programme with therapy dog Lara. He told us that ‘Studies have found that just the presence of a dog can help lower levels of stress and anxiety. A recent Dogs Trust survey found that 95% of dog owners in Britain believe that interacting with their dog made them happier, with 89% saying they talk to their dog when no one else is around.’

I asked Daniel how he uses Lara in a therapy session. He said, ‘Lara became a therapy dog by default due to my job as a psychotherapist. The therapy Lara provides in my sessions doesn’t require any formal training, however, she is registered with the national organisation Pets as Therapy as a therapy animal which ensures that interactions are safe, therapeutic and clinically effective. Plus, I have a diploma in Animal Assisted Therapy alongside my other qualifications.

There are around 6,300 Pets as Therapy dogs visiting hospitals, residential nursing homes and special needs schools in the UK. A therapy dog is different from an assistance dog, which will have special training to provide support for someone with a disability, or for someone living with conditions such as epilepsy. A therapy dog needs to be calm and react well to people’s tears, sudden noises and movements.

Where appropriate and where patients are keen, we introduce her into our sessions, allowing them to interact with her either through patting and stroking, or grooming and hugging her as they participate in their bespoke therapy. I find this helps provide reassurance in moments of distress and helps to rebuild self-esteem. She also performs regular ward visits here at the hospital.

Lara is a fantastic therapy dog and provides a unique comfort to patients. On one occasion, she went over to my patient, put a paw on her lap and literally demanded some attention. Afterwards, the lady in question told me that was exactly what she had needed at that moment and was convinced that Lara sensed that.

There is little doubt in my mind that Lara helps build trust between myself and a client, helps reduce stress, boost self-esteem and generally improve mood. A lot of my therapy sessions have been conducted with the client happily sitting on the floor cuddling and stroking Lara. She gets more feedback on our feedback forms than I do!

Animals can trigger the release of endorphins, which gives a calming effect and boosts the level of serotonin, a chemical linked with happiness and well-being.

By directing one’s attention towards another living thing, a patient's focus is drawn away from his or her own difficulties and, for a while, they can distance themselves from their distress and then begin talking about their own issues and consider ways forward.

Lara works as a great ice breaker in one-to-one and group therapy sessions by making my patients feel more at ease and always lifts the spirits of patients on our ward visits. Petting or stroking a dog does wonders for your blood pressure and stress levels.

Lara is a Staffordshire Bull Terrier, a breed that despite their fearsome reputation, is very loving and people-orientated which makes them very effective as therapy dogs. All my Staffie wants out of life is a great big cuddle and a belly rub. She is a great ambassador for the breed. She is brilliant when patients are feeling stressed and anxious by providing them with love and attention. Lara is probably the most popular member of the therapy services team! ‘

The Priory also offers equine therapy, using horses to assist recovery in Woking.

We have seen how therapy dogs can be so helpful in recovery from mental illness and I will leave the last words to animal assisted therapist Mel Riley,

‘With my therapy dog River I am able to reach clients who have not had the best experience of humans. Her natural accepting way, means clients can receive comforting safe touch. She reaches the most protective of hearts and often provides a safe topic of conversation as clients settle in.

She once snuck into a bedroom and bought a relectant teen down stairs to meet me, in a childrens home. I doubt I would have ever met him without her help. He asked to take her for a walk and he got used to me thanks to River. Dog assisted therapy at its best. ‘

Animals can provide humans with a level of gentle, nurturing support that is needed in the recovery of many mental illnesses and traumas. To learn more about any form of animal assisted therapy, click on the links.