Therapy animals have long been the trusted companions of people with disabilities. Now, animals of all kinds are proving their value to individuals dealing with a wide range of mental health conditions, including depression and even dementia.
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Physiology helps explain why animals are such effective therapists for all of us, says behavioral neurologist Marwan Sabbagh, MD. “Simply petting an animal can decrease the level of the stress hormone cortisol and boost release of the neurotransmitter serotonin, resulting in lowered blood pressure and heart rate and, possibly, in elevated mood.”
Pets can bring calm and companionship
Whether you’re an older adult, a patient dealing with mental health conditions or a caregiver, it’s easy to feel alone and overwhelmed. Depression isn’t uncommon, either, a byproduct of isolation and loneliness.
In these cases, bonding with an animal can help fill this void with social support and, from dogs in particular, unconditional love.
An Australian study of 199 patients who were dealing with mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder found that 94% reported a “reduction of anxiety through tactile stimulation” thanks to a psychiatric assistance dog (PAD). Additionally, 51% of the patients reported that their PAD was responsible for “interrupting undesirable behavior.”
Pets can also foster human connections for their owners. Take a dog for a ramble and strangers who would never dream of approaching you in other situations will strike up a conversation centered on the animal. Even a mere smile from a passerby is a connection that can brighten your day.
A survey of 14 community-dwelling adults aged 65 or older with pets by the journal Aging & Mental Health found that their pets might benefit them by “providing companionship, giving a sense of purpose and meaning, reducing loneliness and increasing socialisation.”
But besides living up to the billing as a human’s best friend, there’s yet another benefit that pets, particularly dogs, can bring owners.
The extra benefit of exercise
If your pet is a dog, especially an active one that loves walking, that can yield a second, equally important benefit: physical exercise, which is also key to a brain-healthy lifestyle.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, adults need at least 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity for good health and double that amount for greater health benefits. Brisk walking (at least 3 mph, around 20 minutes per mile) qualifies as moderate-intensity activity.
The payoff extends beyond enhanced brain health to weight control, improved cardiorespiratory fitness and muscular strength and reduced risk of chronic diseases and killers such as heart disease, stroke, cancer and diabetes.
“We know that physical exercise, and aerobic exercise in particular, is very beneficial for maintaining brain health, even in people who are at risk for developing dementia and Alzheimer’s disease (AD),” says neuropsychologist Aaron Bonner-Jackson, PhD. “You can make a major difference in terms of how your body is functioning and, as a result, how your brain is functioning.”