Can Pets Help Sufferers Of Mental Illness?

Mental illness takes many forms, from anxiety and depression, through to very serious conditions such as dementia, Alzheimer’s and Schizophrenia. Pets are more and more being recognised as a great aid to relieving some of the symptoms found in such illnesses, where sufferers can become withdrawn and isolated, and nothing works to alleviate their problems.

Pets can be owned or ‘on loan’, or purely as visitors to sufferers’ homes in order to raise their spirits and hopefully their communication levels. Care homes in many UK counties have a programme of pet visitations to entertain residents - the difference they can make is quite remarkable. Having seen this interaction in play, there is some foundation behind this reasoning.

It is of course important to remember that certain forms of mental illness where memory may be an issue, that any pet ownership is considered and monitored carefully, for the pets’ wellbeing.

The roles that pets can play

Depending on the extent and type of mental illness, pets can have a significant part in any form of the more ‘curable’ illnesses, such as depression, anxiety and stress. Conditions such as agoraphobia (fear of open spaces) can also be alleviated, with a pet such as a dog acting as a companion.

Dogs fulfil the role of taking the sufferer ‘out of themselves’ and in some instances have rebuilt the life of someone who has become so isolated and exhibiting anti-social behaviour. None of this happens overnight, but slowly and almost surely, the comfort of the animal ensures that mental attitude and fear can be overcome. It may take many months or even years before there is a marked change, but a dog will take a lead role in the procedure – as long as it is the right companion dog for the individual’s personality and needs.

When progress is made, a dog will take an even bigger part in rehabilitating the sufferer in their social skills and life (i.e. dog walking, meeting other likeminded people), and the needs of the dog will take prime spot with its owner, rather than the other way around – they have something else to think about. Dogs also play a part in physical health and encouraging the owner to exercise and get out in the fresh air.

Cats and our other furry friends

One mustn’t forget that even though you don’t walk cats as you do dogs, they provide a tremendous amount of comfort to those suffering from anxiety, stress, extreme nervousness and depression. Cats are built for comfort, which then reflects on their owners, and consequently have a high level of ability to calm anyone anxious or stressed down a level or two. Simple stroking or having your cat lying next to you is a good way to relax and decrease any stressful thoughts. Smaller animals such as rabbits, guinea pigs etc., can also be stressbusters – it’s all about soothing contact.

Often isolation and varieties of depression and stress can make the sufferer feel somewhat worthless daily. Having a comfort pet that needs to be looked after themselves, will activate the mind to more positive thoughts and gives a sense of purpose and worth, which many sufferers experience.

Pets as communicators

Pets can encourage communication in cases where mental illness sufferers have become insular and introverted, i.e. a recent study at a care home for dementia patients were bowled over by the arrival of a brightly coloured and well-versed parrot who subsequently became ‘the great entertainer’, with his talking, singing and dancing. Some long-term residents who had hardly ever talked or even wanted to stay in their rooms all day long, gradually came out to see this amusing parrot. Both the colour and the speech created stimulus in sufferers. Still being studied, this certainly had amazing results in a very short period. It must be said though, the antics and clarity of speech of the parrot was definitive, and this could have influenced any form of speech therapy – just a noisy parrot may have caused irritation and had the opposite effect on residents.

Pets and the elderly

Many elderly people live alone, frequently in isolation if there are no friends or family around to visit. This causes them to suffer anxiety and insecurity, particularly in today’s world. Whilst social services are a great bonus to elderly isolated people, there is nothing better than a pet to act as companion. In this instance, a dog is particularly special, as this gives a bigger sense of security and safety in the home. A dog will also increase their desire to get up in the morning as ‘the dog will need them’. They will be happily able to share a daily routine and the result should be less anxiety. The elderly owner will know that the dog needs them, so they need to get up in the morning to take care of their pet. Very worthwhile, if the dog and owner are a good fit.

What about pets for the younger sufferers?

As sad as it is to talk about mental illness in younger people, it has been somewhat on the increase in the forms of ADHD and autism, which is not something they bring on themselves.

The Mental Health Foundation reports that youngsters with ADHD can benefit from being given the responsibility of owning a pet, and forming a routine for daily feeding, brushing, walking etc. They can also benefit greatly from expending excess energy (this is evident in those suffering from ADHD) by playing and running with their dog or playing rough and tumble with a silly kitten – anything that uses up that over the top energy.

The Foundation also reports that extensive studies are being carried out on the potential benefits of children with autism and relationships with animals. As autism can cause increased sensory sensitivity, animals can be used to lessen sensitivity such as touch, feel and smell, and get autistic youngsters more used to it. They have found preliminary success particularly with dogs and horses.

Let’s hope that the role of pets continues to help all mental illness sufferers.


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