Service Animals and Mental Health

Over the years, we have seen different kinds of treatment methods discovered, researched, and implemented. Some have certainly been a success, while others have proven the opposite. One effective method that has been successfully implemented into treating mental illness, especially throughout the past decade, has been the use of service animals.

Before use for mental health, services have been used to support police, military veterans, and individuals with disabilities. According to BMC Psychiatry, recognition of the therapeutic functions of animals have on mental health is increasing. However, there has been “no systematic review of the evidence related to the comprehensive role of companion animals and how pets might contribute to the work associates with managing a long-term mental health condition.” Despite this lack of evidence, many animal owners will attest to how their animals improve their overall lives, though animal lovers may be slightly biased.

Dog Lovers, This Section Is for You

One study from the Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Insitute (MDPI) examined the effect of dogs, specifically on university students. In the study, those students were assigned to watch dog videos or interact with dogs. The students’ moods and anxiety levels were assessed before and after the assignment. The study showed that “participants in both conditions experienced a reduction in their anxiety and an improvement in their mood across time.” Yet, individuals who had interacted directly with a dog experienced a “greater decline in anxiety and improved mood scores.” With university students showing a tendency to have increased levels of anxiety and psychological distress, the ability of an interaction with a dog to have a positive effect offers some power to the practice.

In addition to the psychological benefits, animals have also been shown to substantially affect what the MDPI describes as “measurable physiological correlates of stress.” The research they referenced examined the results of blood pressure and pulse of 27 males and 34 females after physical contact with both a dog and a cat. From the study, participants who held a dog experienced an “immediate decrease in diastolic blood pressure.” However, that reduction in blood pressure did not occur during the contact with an animal and “only occurred after the contact had taken place.” Additionally, dog interactions also can decrease cortisol levels, which is the body’s hormonal stress response.

Animal Companionship

Most people are aware of the exponential increase of individuals experiencing mental illness. Referencing the study from BMC Psychiatry, it’s been observed that sometimes, traditional methods that can help lessen symptoms can also fail. Some of the potential BMC Psychiatry has seen in regards to the correlation of animal companions effects on individuals has been demonstrated through examining pet ownership. Some studies have shown an overall improved quality of life for those who own pets.

According to Health Direct, a national virtual public health information service, we can estimate at least seven ways pets can improve health. These mental AND physical benefits include:

  • Reduce stress by lowering blood pressure, help you relax, and practice mindfulness.
  • Provide companionship due to their affectionate, accepting, and loyal behavior.
  • Fulfill a need for physical contact, where just petting an animal can lower a heart rate.
  • Help increase your self-esteem, as pets need their owners to feed them, clean, them and take care of their overall well-being.
  • Provide a sense of purpose, which can improve mental health, knowing there’s a living thing that’s relying on you.
  • Create opportunities for social interaction with individuals who have similar interests, i.e., animal lovers, and can help those with a fear of social situations.
  • Improve your fitness, most specifically for dog lovers, as taking them on regular walks benefits you too.

The beauty of having a pet is that while they rely on you to love and take care of them, we can often rely on them just as much for our own overall well-being.

How You Can Benefit from Animals

All this information may be great for animal lovers and a little less exciting for anyone who may have allergies or not have pets. No worries, though, because some even say that one can reap these positive effects by just watching fish in an aquarium. Even the most low-key pets can help.

Additionally, dispute some of the studies and whatever evidence there may or may not be, animals and pets are not a substitute for professional treatment. Many different methods might work for you, and sometimes it’s a process of trial and error. Sometimes it takes a carefully put-together regiment of therapy, and for you, that may include a furry, slimy, or even scaly friend.

There are many avenues one can take when seeking treatment for any struggles with mental illness. For some, traditional methods work effectively, and for others, they may not. While more research needs to be conducted, and more evidence may be necessary to convince individuals of the effectiveness of animals on mental and physical health, scientific studies have shown interactions with animals to lower heart rate, blood pressure, and cortisol levels. Emotionally, owning a pet can increase self-esteem, give a sense of person, and help individuals participate in more social situations. If you struggle with mental illness and are an animal lover, pet ownership may be the best of both worlds for your treatment. If you or someone you love is struggling in general with mental illness, we encourage you to reach out to resources near you. If you aren’t sure where to start, you can reach the Lakehouse at (877) 762-3707.