Is medicine going to the dogs and cats? Perhaps, but in a good way. Pet therapy is gaining fans in health care and beyond. The adoring gaze of a brown-eyed dog looking at you for attention, or the comforting purr of a cat waiting to be stroked, can be helpful to people with mental health challenges. New research is suggesting this may be the best medicine yet.

Stress, anxiety and emotional distress are experienced by millions of people all over the world each year. Medication and talk therapy has become the mainstay of treatment for mental health disorders like depression and anxiety. Some people may be finding relief with less conventional treatments. They bark, meow, beg for attention and need lots of love.

It is estimated almost 70 percent of households in the United States have pets and a large percentage of these owners consider their pets as a member of the family. Now more than ever, pets are kept for companionship, because they are important and a valued part of the family. Dogs and cats have moved from sleeping outside to sleeping next to us in bed.

With such a strong bond between pet owners and their pets it makes sense that animals may, in fact, influence the lives of their owners. Research has shown that direct interaction with animals can improve some measures of mental and physical health.

Some of this research on the physical health benefits of interacting with a pet has shown children with pets having a lower body mass index. Adults with pets tend to have lower blood pressure. In addition to physical health benefits, pets have demonstrated a huge impact on mental and emotional health.

Pets may reduce anxiety, depression and feelings of isolation. They may also improve a person’s daily routine and encourage social contact with others. Pets provide unconditional love and offer support for their owner. This can lead to a reduction in emotional distress and possibly lead to improved mental health.

Emotional support animals provide support for people suffering from mental or emotional health problems.  Most often, emotional support animals are dogs or cats. However, there are studies showing guinea pigs, fish and even horses can have a positive impact on physical or emotional health.

Having an emotional support animal requires a letter from a licensed medical professional. This provides the owner with legal protection and financial assistance in some cases.

Service animals, on the other hand, receive special training to be able to provide aid and perform skills to assist with their owner’s health needs. Service dogs may be used for mental health problems, but they are used to help people with certain medical conditions as well. Service dogs can enter public places like restaurants and workplaces, while emotional support animals cannot. However, both can travel with the owner and live with you free of charge.

Spending time with a dog, cat or animal of your choice can actually increase levels of serotonin and dopamine in the brain – similar to the way in which antidepressant medications work. In addition to the effect on the brain, owning a pet requires the owner to take care of it, which in turn encourages them to take care of themselves. People exercise by taking the animal for a walk or play and gain a sense of purpose for each day by taking care of the animal’s daily needs.

Persons suffering from post traumatic stress disorder or a mood disorder such as bipolar or depression can benefit greatly from a service animal trained to help them through panic attacks, mania and dangerous situations. They can be trained to ensure their owners get their medication and to help reorient their owners to reality and help alert emergency services if needed.

Animals give unconditional love and a sense of comfort. They are being used more and more to help stressed out college students and lonely nursing home residents to improve mood and reduce anxiety and help to alleviate loneliness, according to the Human Animal Bond Institute, a nonprofit organization that funds research into the health benefits of pets and animal-human interactions.

If you have questions about animal therapy and if it’s right for you,talk to your mental health care provider.

“Pets don’t see imperfections. They only see love.”

-Unknown

Overfield is an advocate for the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Park County. For info call (307) 250-2978.

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