As we enter Mental Health Awareness Week, NOAH recognises the benefits that companion animals bring to owners, helping them keep going during such unprecedented and uncertain times, helping calm anxieties and worries.
We know our pets have a positive benefit on our own mental health and that is backed by science: they are widely recognised (1) as having positive benefits on stress, anxiety, depression and loneliness. They provide companionship, encourage physical and social activity and healthy routines, which can even, in some cases, be life changing (2) for their owners.
NOAH’s own study has found that 67% people (3) believe having a pet provides companionship and friendship and 52% believe that pets help those who may be feeling lonely – as, even before lockdown, over 9 million people in the UK – almost a fifth of the population – have said they always or often feel lonely(4).
The unconditional love and companionship pets provide, and the feeling of responsibility and pride which can be extremely beneficial (2) for those struggling with anxiety and depression. Physical exercise is frequently recommended to those suffering from depression and anxiety (a big part of why it has remained as part of our guidance during these times) and pets can be a great motivator (1).
Inside or out, having an animal around can also have a calming effect. Stroking, playing with or even just sitting next to an animal can elevate levels of serotonin (5) and dopamine which help calm and relax, providing sensory stress relief and lowering blood pressure (6).
Jon Neal, chief executive of mental health charity Suffolk Mind, said: “Maintaining good mental health is all about getting key emotional needs met. For many people, a pet is their way of meeting their need for emotional connection. We all need someone in our lives who accepts us, warts and all, for who we are. Someone we can count on when the chips are down and that we can be ourselves around. For many people, their animal companion serves that function, and many more. Lots of us feel we can confide in our pets, rather than the humans in our lives.”
We should not forget the lockdown is not without its impact on our pets’ own wellbeing too. With many pets overjoyed to be sharing so much time with their human companions, young and old, they too have had to adjust to a new way of living.
As animal owners and companion animal vets have done their best to follow government advice to stay at home as much as possible, some pets, like us, may have been having to deal with health problems that would ordinarily not have gone unchecked. While the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS) conducted a study showing things had improved between April and May, the majority of respondent practices (69%) were still seeing a reduced caseload, including some routine work, while 26% still have had to limit their caseload to emergencies only. In April, the overwhelming majority of respondent practices (97%) had had to limit their caseloads to emergency or urgent cases only (7).
Dawn Howard, NOAH’s chief executive, comments: “Our pets have been invaluable to us during these times of extreme stress. As we start to come out of lockdown, we need to make sure we take stock of their own needs too.
“Being at home with our pets, we are in a good place to be able to watch for any small changes: a slight limp, a change in eating or drinking patterns, discomfort when eating, lack of energy on a daily walk or an unusual urge to withdraw from us. Changes like these can be indicators of an underlying problem which may be impacting our pets’ welfare. It’s important to contact your vet to discuss these and other matters, such as vaccinations and parasite control that may have slipped as we have been staying at home.
“Processes for consultation may have changed, for example with greater use of video conferencing for initial consultations, but your vet will still be able to work with you to make sure you keep your pets physically and mentally happy in these unprecedented times,” Dawn said.
(1) Pets and Mental Health: the Mental Health Foundation
(2) How getting a dog changed my life
, MIND, January 2018
(3) Research reveals childhood pets increase ability to cope with adulthood stress
(4) Campaign to end loneliness
(5) The Mood-Boosting Power of Pets
(6) How pets improve mental health issues, from depression to PTSD
(7) RCVS survey #2 on the economic impact of Covid-19 on veterinary clinical practices