Delightfully, one of the main benefits of being with animals is how this enhances our relationships with humans. Animals provide warm, easy shared interest, conversation topics and potential activity with other patients, staff, friends, family, visitors.
- Research shows that contact with animals can result in considerable boost in:
- reduction of anxiety
- social competence
- Having a nurturing role and responsibility is very beneficial for people who have limited opportunities for these important aspects of identity. It’s great to feel needed and wanted.
- Animals are non-judgemental, which is greatly appreciated by patients who can feel over-assessed and stigmatised. As the author George Eliot put it: “Animals are such agreeable friends – they ask no questions, they pass no criticisms.”
- Hierarchy – patients can feel they aren’t the most in need of help on the ward and that they can be the providers of that help.
Relationship with animals
- Companionship is probably the loveliest aspect of contact with animals, especially pets on wards. Even in a frantically busy ward, patients can feel lonely and isolated.
- Among many other benefits, there’s:
- Unconditional affection, love, forgiveness
- Familiarity, continuity,
- Can be easier than contact with humans, especially for people with little language and/or who are very withdrawn.
- Fun, playfulness
- Cute, endearing. The aaaah factor.
- Makes you wonder about how they think and feel.
- Makes you feel protective
- Mutual need
- Stroking, holding, cuddling a loving animal is a great stress-buster.
- Can gush all over them, call them ridiculous names, stroke them for hours, tell them over and over how magnificent they are, how much you love them. And other stuff like that which most humans would tire of after a few days if not minutes.
What an incredible ‘prescription’ for good mental health the following benefits of contact with animals are!
- Stress-busting, anxiety-reducing
- Supporting the therapeutic relationship with staff
- Enabling people to show their emotions
- Helping with impulsivity, self-control and dealing healthily with aggressive thoughts and feelings
- Providing structure and routine to the day.
- Increasing patience
- Creating a sense of security
- Having an external focus – i.e. beyond one’s own symptoms and situation
- A connectedness with ‘reality’ for patients experiencing psychosis, dementia and other disorienting symptoms
- Boosting motivation
- And helping people:
- Enjoy small things
- Live in the moment (mindfulness…)
- Let go
- Exercise imagination and curiosity
- Additionally, dogs fetch these well-established mental health enhancers:
- Being outdoors
Whether it’s feeding the fish, mucking out the stable, walking the dog or stroking the cat, contact with animals can be a wonderful way of gaining new skills such as:
- Enhancing responsibility, compassion, and empathy
- Learning what animals need
- Increasing problem-solving skills
- Changing deeply established attitudes and behaviours