Mental Health and Animals

By Amal Naeem

Around the world, more and more people are experiencing mental health problems every year. The World Health Organization reports that more than 300 million people of all ages suffer from depression globally. Despite there being evidenced effective treatments for depression, fewer than half of those affected in the world (in many countries, fewer than 10 per cent) receive such treatments.[1] There are efforts being made to identify and mobilize resources to support people living with mental illnesses, however this space leaves much to be desired in Pakistan. Here, majority of affected populations do not have access to quality mental health services, which is made worse due to the rampant stigma associated with mental illnesses. The more traditional approaches to dealing with mental illnesses include self-management of long-term conditions, which focus on psychological mechanisms of behavioral change. While these approaches can be effective, they fail to consider extraneous variables, such as the domestic and local environments which form the latent and constituent part of systems of lay and community support for individuals.[2]

The Pakistan Association of Mental Health (PAMH) cites that the country is increasingly getting ‘depressed’, with the actual number of people living with depression and other mental disorders believed to be much higher than the recorded 37 per cent.[3] The President of PAMH said that levels of stress are worsening, with every fourth household having someone who suffers from a mental illness requiring specialized treatment. Negative personal stressors of life, including work and education-related stresses, financial problems, death, health, unemployment, sleep problems, commuting and legal problems, amongst others, are taking their toll on people.

In addition to more traditional methods of treating mental illnesses and dealing with personal stressors, people are also turning towards newer methods, such as animal-assisted pet therapy to address mental health problems. Animal-assisted therapy can be used to help improve patients’ mental, social, emotional, and physical functions. This kind of therapy can take place in various settings, including specialized treatment centers and hospitals. It involves different activities such as walking, nurturing and grooming the therapy animal. Globally, studies have shown that support animals can provide a comforting presence to owners that suffer from mental health illnesses, especially patients dealing with PTSD, anxiety, agoraphobia, depression and generalized anxiety disorder.

The first research on pets and mental health was published 30 years ago by psychologist Alan Beck of Purdue University and psychiatrist Aaron Katcher of the University of Pennsylvania. For the experiment, they measured what happens in our bodies when interacting with a friendly dog, and recorded physical changes which included the lowering of blood pressure, slower heart rates, breathing becoming more regular and relaxed muscle tension; all signs of lessened stress.

Although the use of animals to assist individuals with psychiatric issues is a more recent trend,[4] it has quickly caught on in the West. More recently, according to the Journal of Evidence-Informed Social Work, there has been an 82 per cent reduction in the symptoms of PTSD (and other trauma-related issues) after just one week of having an emotional support animal. One case noted that interacting with the dog for as little as one week, enabled a patient to decrease their dose of anxiety and sleep medications by half.[5]

A study by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that a pet dog may protect children from anxiety, building a case for encouraging families with young children to adopt animals as pets.  A total of 643 children participated in the study by the CDC. A little over half of them had pet dogs in the home, while all participants were controlled for similar BMIs, screen time and physical activity. However, their anxiety levels were different, with only 12 per cent of children who had pet dogs testing positive for anxiety, compared with 21 per cent who did not own pet dogs. As a result, children who grow up with pets may have a better chance of becoming happy and healthy teens.

A 2016 study at the University of Manchester noted that the participants said that pets helped them manage their everyday lives and illness. The study involved participants who had been diagnosed with mental disorders, ranging from depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or PTSD. 60 per cent of the participants placed pets in their most important circle of supportive connections and reported that pets gave them a sense of identity, higher self-esteem, self-worth and distracted them from their symptoms, which for some, included hearing voices, suicidal thoughts or negative cogitation.[6]

Furthermore, caring for a living being other than ourselves makes us feel needed, and can have specifically positive effects on the elderly. A study at the Kyungpook National University School of Medicine, Korea in 2016 gave elderly people five crickets in a cage. Researchers then monitored their moods over eight weeks and compared the results with a control group which was not caring for any pets. The participants that were caring for crickets became less depressed and reported lower levels of loneliness after eight weeks when compared with the control group.

Real world examples can be found in universities and colleges in the United States that have been facilitating physically handicapped students who require guide dogs and other types of service animals to provide ease for decades. However, within the past few years, it is becoming gradually more common for mentally disabled students and students suffering from mental illnesses to bring emotional support animals to campus to assist in managing their stress, loneliness, depression and anxiety. Furthermore, animal assisted therapy can be a more viable option for people who may find it difficult to open up and share with another human, or those who may be hesitant to approach the more traditional treatments for mental illnesses.  

The Human Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI) is working towards increasing the knowledge of health benefits of pets and has funded approximately $2 million in research projects which explore the health benefits of human-animal interactions, while continuing to raise awareness of the health benefits of pet ownership and animal-assisted interventions. Unfortunately, any such research body is lacking in Pakistan. Coupled with the Islamic tradition that dictates dogs are impure and warns against contact with them, there are miles to cover and many gaps to fill before pet therapy can become mainstream in Pakistan as an effective treatment for mental health disorders, despite its demonstrated benefits and positive results.  

Research and personal experience of a lifetime of animal companionship and unconditional love corroborate that simply petting a dog lowers the stress hormone in humans, cortisol, while interactions with dogs increases the levels of the feel-good hormone, oxytocin,[7] something all pet owners can testify to. This kind of unconditional love is good for mental health, as Dr. Levinson, the pioneer of animal assisted therapy said, “a pet is an island of sanity in what appears to be an insane world.”

[1] World Health Organization

[2] Helen Louise Brooks, Kelly Rushton, Karina Lovell, Penny Bee, Lauren Walker, Laura Grant and Anne Rogers

[3] Dr. S Haroon Ahmad, PAMH

[4] Huss, 2012

[5] Debra Mims & Rhondda Waddell (2016) Animal Assisted Therapy and Trauma Survivors, Journal of Evidence-Informed Social Work

[6] Brooks H, Rushton 2, Walker 3, Lovell 2, Rogers A.

[7] Johns Hopkins Medicine