What does pet health look like this month?
Welcome to the October edition of our ‘We Are One Health’ pet owner blog series. Each month we explore a different topic related to our companion animals. October 10th is World Mental Health Day focussing on mental health issues around the world, so we’re taking a look at how owning a pet can have a positive effect on our mental health, and how we can make sure our pets are happy and healthy too.
Getting a pet of any kind is a substantial commitment that not everyone can take on, but that doesn’t mean that you need to miss out on the benefits that animals bring. If you can’t commit to being a pet owner due to time, money or suitable space, there are other ways of interacting with animals, whether it’s volunteering at an animal shelter or even dog walking.
Animals and mental health
Pets, particularly cats and dogs, are widely recognised as having positive benefits on stress, anxiety, depression and loneliness. They provide companionship, encourage physical and social activity and healthy routines, which can in some cases be life changing for their owners.
NOAH’s own study has shown that 87% of pet owners felt they were happier as a result of their pet, with around half believing that their four-legged friends helped reduce stress levels.
Depression and anxiety
Pets provide unconditional love and companionship, and a feeling of responsibility and pride which can be extremely beneficial for those struggling with anxiety and depression. Physical exercise is frequently recommended to those suffering from depression and anxiety and pets, particularly dogs, can be a great motivator for their owners encouraging them to get outside for a walk, throw a ball and get some fresh air.
Inside or out, having an animal around can also have a calming effect. Stroking, playing with or even just sitting next to an animal can elevate levels of serotonin and dopamine which help calm and relax, providing sensory stress relief and lowering blood pressure.
Over 9 million people in the UK – almost a fifth of the population – say they are always or often lonely, and pets can provide support for those experiencing loneliness as they help to build social connections. Dogs have the strongest connection to loneliness, but all pets can be used as a way to make a non-judgemental, emotional connection with other people.
Pets can be a brilliant way to combat loneliness and depression for older people in particular. They provide companionship and help older people stay active and meet new friends with similar interests, helping people feel more integrated and less isolated. Animals are great at interpreting our tone of voice, body language and gestures and understanding our moods so can be incredibly supportive to owners who are feeling lonely.
Animals are also used to help with a number of more serious or long-term conditions such as PTSD or recovery from alcohol or drug addictions. Animals such as dogs and horses mirror and respond to human behaviour, making them great companions for psychotherapy.
Pet’s mental health
Just like humans, our pets have needs to keep them physically and mentally happy and healthy. A well-balanced diet, stimulation from games and toys, socialising, regular grooming and regular exercise are all key.
We spoke with cat owner Jo to find out how her two cats Brock and Olly help improve her mental wellbeing and how she keeps them happy.
Can you tell us about the bond that you have with Brock and Olly?
There's something about coming home from a long day, turning the key in the lock and knowing that there will be a cat there waiting for you, expectantly. They greet me, follow me into the kitchen, usually roll about in the shoes I've just taken off, (they have a real thing for shoes) and generally wait to be fed. If we're home of an evening, the cats join us on the sofa, generally sit on one of our laps and purr till they fall asleep; they really are part of the family.
How do you feel that Brock and Olly enhance your mental wellbeing?
Knowing that we have the responsibility to keep these guys healthy gives us almost a sense of purpose; making sure they're fed, loved and cared for. I'll be honest, when I'm having a stressful time, I do talk to them, and although they don't talk back, it almost feels like they're listening, which in itself can really help ease my stress levels.
Have your cats helped you through any difficult times?
It can be comforting to feel like they are looking out for you. Whenever I'm ill, even if it's just a cold, they don't leave my side – Olly, in particular. A few weeks ago, I was bedridden for 3 days with a nasty chest infection and he stayed on my bed next to me almost the entire time – he definitely sensed I was ill and was watching out for me. The sense of mutual loyalty and trust can be a real comfort.
How do you make sure that Brock and Olly are happy and stress-free?
I think the key to a mentally happy pet is a physically healthy one. We make sure they go to the vet as soon as we notice things may be off with them; we take notice of their habits to make sure we are aware if they're not well; we give them flea medication every month and their injections every year; we change their litter when they use it; we feed them every day and give them treats on occasion. We also always make sure we have toys out for them and a scratch post so they have something to do and we let them roam outside during the day although we try not to let them out at night as they can get into fights with other cats and foxes. We have a cat flap that opens at 7am and closes at 7pm to ensure they have the independence to come and go as they please. When we go away, we make sure a friend can house sit and look after them or we will put them in a cattery to ensure they are still well looked after and loved.