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Pet owners know the fun, spontaneity, and joy animals bring to our lives: an excited pup spinning in circles whenever he hears your car, a cat whose happy purr vibrates when you pet her, guinea pigs who squeak hello – the list goes on. 

According to the World Animal Foundation, about 86.9 million U.S. households have at least one pet. And in one survey, 74 percent of the respondents credited pet ownership with improving their mental health. So let’s dig into the science behind pet therapy, with a little help from Parma Animal Shelter. 

Proof that pets positively impact our lives and health 

Science suggests that pets provide good therapy for all people, especially those diagnosed with mental health disorders like anxiety or depression. Other studies concur that pets provide security and routine and emotional support, facilitate the growth of relationships, friendships, and social networks, and even promote longevity. 

The Human Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI) recently committed over $3 million to support research projects to explore benefits of human-animal interaction in mental health and wellness; child health and development; and healthy aging.  

Pet therapy for mental health 

 You don’t necessarily need to have a specific therapy-trained animal to benefit from interacting with your pet. 

  • Snuggling with pets activates oxytocin levels. This hormone decreases your blood pressure and heart rate while also lowering stress, anger, and depression. 
  • Stress activates your body’s flight or fight mode and triggers the release of cortisol and epinephrine. It can be highly beneficial in the short term, but not if you live in a constant state of stress, particularly because of your job. Pets make all things better by lowering your brain’s stress response which, in turn, reduces your heart rate and those stress hormones.
  • Pets help ward off loneliness and isolation by engaging us with their antics – and their (sometimes crazy) demands – but what better way to be kept on our toes?! They’re a much healthier “distraction” than other avenues people choose to ward off a low point.
  • Believe it or not, your stressful job can rub off on your pet. Watch for concerns like urinating excessively, a sudden shift towards more aggressive or submissive behavior, or dramatic changes in eating or drinking habits.

A word on pets and depression 

It’s worth noting that if you’ve been thinking about getting a pet to help with depression or anxiety, it’s generally a good idea, but a pet is a big responsibility. If you’re too depressed to get out of bed, you may not be ready to take care of anyone else. On the other hand, if a pet gets you out of bed and makes you more likely to keep the place clean and organized, then by all means do it! 

Trained pet therapists 

The National Institute of Mental Health now recognizes animal-assisted therapy as a legitimate treatment for depression and other mood disorders. Therapy animals encourage feelings of wellbeing, reduce stress, and generally improve a person’s physical or emotional function.Many programs train pets – usually dogs – to become therapy animals. The programs focus on skills that include: 

  • Basic obedience 
  • Socializing 
  • Canine good citizenship 

Therapy Dogs International, for example, is the largest organization that regulates, tests, and registers therapy dogs and their handlers to visit hospitals, nursing homes, and other institutions where people would benefit from a visit from a therapy dog. 

Improve your fitness & be more social 

If you’ve got a dog and go for regular strolls, you’ll be happy to know that you’re probably in better shape and more fit than non-dog-walking or dog-less people. If you’re contemplating adopting a pet and figure a dog’s a good bet for helping you to get into shape, you’re right! A study of more than 2,000 adults concluded that dog walkers got more exercise and had fewer weight issues than those who didn’t walk dogs. Getting outdoors with your pup can improve your mood and reduce your blood pressure as well.  

Daily walks provide a great opportunity to meet other people, too. Who can resist puppy dog eyes, a wagging tale, or a grinning pooch? Dogs are great icebreakers and conversation starters; research even indicates that people find us more approachable and trustworthy when we have dogs.  

But what happens if you love dogs yet can’t have one as a pet? Offer to walk your neighbor’s dog, volunteer at the local shelter or become a professional dog walker. Start with just a few clients; if the market supports it, grow your business into a full-time gig.   

Pets make everything better 

Many institutions like Johns Hopkins, UCLA Health, the Mayo Clinic, and Harvard Medical School now recognize the role that animal companions play in supporting and improving human health.  

There’s no need to justify welcoming a pet into your life. Occasional messes aside, they help us to maintain our mental mojo, make us laugh, reduce our risk of heart disease, and keep the loneliness away, always with unconditional love. 

Parma Animal Shelter is run by volunteers for the stray and abandoned animals of the City of Parma. Volunteers dedicate their time to tasks such as walking the dogs, cleaning cages for the dogs and cats, feeding the animals, and giving them love. We also have volunteers that foster some of our animals in their home. Call 440-885-8014. 

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