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Animal Instinct

an animal comforting someone in hospital
Posted July 20, 2019

The concept of ‘emotional support animals’ has garnered a lot of discussion—and some giggles. But science has shown that owning a pet greatly improves your mental health.

Ever giggled at the idea of a miniature pony boarding a plane as an emotional support animal (ESA)? What about a kangaroo or a squirrel? Would you consider a hedgehog or goat a viable alternative? Each of these creatures (and others) are legitimate emotional support animals!

Chances are most of us won’t find ourselves in need of a registered ESA, but there are plenty of benefits for our mental and physical health by spending some time with animals.
According to Psychology Today, ‘Pet owners score more favorably on numerous mental and physical health measures’. They have more self-esteem, less fear and loneliness compared with those who live in a pet-free household. Owning a pet also increases the likelihood that you exercise and, therefore, are physically fit.

A study revealed that ‘pets inoculate people against the effects of social rejection’. Pet owners who wrote about their pets were less likely to feel low after being rejected, compared with the control group. ‘The pet friend and human friend were just as effective as a means of providing social support.’ The researchers concluded that ‘pets infuse substantial well-being benefits to their humans’.

Other studies have shown that dog owners are less likely to have depression. ‘Caring for a dog can help build greater resilience and coping skills to ward off depression, anxiety and dangerous levels of stress.’

Dogs and cats aren’t the only pets that provide health benefits—visiting an aquarium and watching fish swimming around can lower your pulse and reduce muscle tension. (Unless you’re petrified of sharks, of course!)

One of the therapeutic effects is that, ‘pets fulfill the basic human need for touch. Even hardened criminals in prison show long-term changes in their behaviour after interacting with pets, many of them experiencing mutual affection for the first time,’ says

Pets also contribute to a healthy aging process. As we retire from our career and our children move away, ‘caring for a pet can bring pleasure and help boost your morale, optimism and sense of self-worth’. Dogs, especially, can be a great conversation starter and help us to meet new people (which can get harder the older we get). If laughter is good medicine, then a daily dose of cats and dogs is just what the doctor ordered. Animals encourage ‘playfulness, laughter and exercise, which can help boost your immune system and increase your energy’.

If you don’t have a pet of your own, there are still ways to benefit from animal interactions. You could visit your local SPCA or adoption centre. Most allow you to hang out with the animals. There’s nothing quite like 15 minutes cuddling a puppy or getting a kitten to chase a toy around the room. Some centres also care for rabbits, livestock and other domestic animals.

Perhaps Charlie Brown was onto something when he said: ‘happiness is a warm puppy’.

Pets help us make healthy lifestyle changes by:

  • Increasing exercise.
  • Providing companionship.
  • Helping you meet new people.
  • Reducing stress.
  • Adding structure and routine to your day.
  • Providing sensory stress relief.