Since the pandemic began, stress levels have increased and remained elevated for a significant portion of the population. Social isolation, health restrictions, travel restrictions, political disagreements, and losses of loved ones have manifested as increased reports of anxiety, depression, sleep difficulties, substance abuse, and worsening health conditions (1). When reading about ways to improve mental health, it has become common to see recommendations of deep breathing exercises, meditation, yoga, exercise, and taking a break from the news. Pet support and animal-assisted therapy also have significant potential as stress management options.
The human-animal bond has existed and evolved over thousands of years. Animals have become agricultural assistants on farms and ranches, service animals at schools and hospitals, and companions at home. Service animals – “defined as a dog that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability” – have been trained to guide the blind, to alert and protect a person having a seizure, and to alert a diabetic patient that he/she is reaching elevated or low levels of blood sugar (2). Although the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) does not consider an emotional support animal a service animal, that does not negate the physiological effects animals have on their humans.
Pet ownership is associated with lower risk of cardiovascular disease, improved physiological response to stress, better pain management, and improved cognition in the elderly. One study assessed human-dog interactions and analyzed levels of oxytocin and cortisol, molecules associated with maternal attachment and stress. Researchers found that non-noxious sensory stimulation (i.e. petting a dog) can cause oxytocin release in both humans and dogs which in turn decreases cortisol levels and blood pressure (3). Another study of over 5,000 participants with similar BMIs and socioeconomic profiles found pet owners had lower systolic blood pressure readings in comparison to non-pet owners (4). Similarly, a different study of 48 participants diagnosed with hypertension were randomly chosen to acquire or not acquire a pet. Six months later, physiological responses to stress were measured and compared to non-pet owners. Those who had acquired a pet had significantly diminished blood pressures and heart rates when re-exposed to mental stress. Animals have also had positive behavioral influences in children diagnosed with ADHD, autism spectrum disorder, and type 1 diabetes (5).
From a naturopathic perspective, it is always important to identify and address the root cause of why individuals are experiencing symptoms such as depression and anxiety. Mood imbalance can stem from a variety of etiologies including (but not limited to) chronically high stress levels, a traumatic event, a specific fear, loss of a loved one, nutritional deficiencies, dysbiosis, neurotransmitter imbalance, and/or social isolation. Owning a pet or finding a provider offering animal assisted psychotherapy has the potential to be useful in cases of depression or anxiety stemming from loss of a loved one or social isolation. It could also be an effective adjunctive therapy to necessary medications, supplements, and dietary interventions. Intention and mindfulness also matter. Spending time petting or grooming your animal can also be used as time for practicing mindfulness with deep breaths, feeling your body relax and releasing stress at the end of the day.
Animals are terrific listeners that offer unconditional love and acceptance to their owners. They can teach us about compassion and healthy boundaries, while making us laugh and smile. You do not have to own an animal to accept what they have to offer. There are numerous ways to incorporate animals into your life including volunteer work, fostering, pet sitting, or finding a provider offering animal assisted therapy.
If you do decide to bring a new animal into your family, ensure you can make a full commitment to adopt or purchase an animal. Consider the personality of the animal and weigh the degree of responsibility for a fish, guinea pig, rabbit, cat, dog, horse, or other companion. Can you meet the needs of the animal you’re choosing? Not all animals enjoy being picked up, cuddled, or approached in the same manner. For example, it is a common assumption that all rabbits are cute and cuddly, while realistically not all rabbits enjoy being held. Some people assume birds are always in cages and low maintenance animals, but there are some species of birds that are affectionate or high maintenance. Even though a breed of dog has certain characteristics, there are always exceptions. Consider if you want a companion to go walking or hiking with or if you would rather have an animal to snuggle with on the couch. What animal best matches your lifestyle?
Laurel Erath, ND is a naturopathic doctor at Rutland Integrative Health.
- Czeisler Mark, et al. “Mental Health, Substance Use, and Suicidal Ideation During the COVID-19 Pandemic – United States.” Weekly. August 14, 2020; 69(32); 1049-1057. https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6932a1.htm. Date accessed: October 16, 2021.
- U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, Disability Rights Section. “Frequently Asked Questions about Service Animals and the ADA.” July 20, 2015. https://www.ada.gov/regs2010/service_animal_qa.html . Date accessed: October 16, 2021.
- Petersson Maria, et al. “Oxytocin and Cortisol Levels in Dog Owners and Their Dogs Are Associated with Behavioral Patterns: An Exploratory Study.” Front Psychol. 2017; 8:1796. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5645535/. Date accessed: October 16, 2021.
- Levine Glenn, et al. “Pet Ownership and Cardiovascular Risk.” Circulation. 2013;127:2353-2363. https://www.ahajournals.org/doi/full/10.1161/CIR.0b013e31829201e1. Date accessed: October 16, 2021.
- NIH News In Health, Wein Harrison PhD. “The Power of Pets.” NIH News. Feb 2018. https://newsinhealth.nih.gov/2018/02/power-pets. Date accessed: October 16, 2021.
- Serpell J, Kruger K, Freeman L, Griffin J, Ng Z. “Current Standards and Practices Within the Therapy Dog Industry: Results of a Representative Survey of United States Therapy Dog Organizations.” Front Vet Sci. 2020; 7:35. Date accessed: October 16, 2021. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7020743/