Animals are good for humans. They offer emotional support in many situations, they listen, do not judge, and are there when you feel lonely. This is not just the experience of individual pet owners; it’s also a fact that has been proven by numerous studies.
At the University of Liverpool, 17 studies from different countries examined the positive influence of pets on the mental well-being of humans. The result overwhelmingly supported the view that dogs, cats and other companion animals have a demonstrably positive effect on their human owners, regardless of age. The investigations looked at both adults and children suffering from a variety of mental health problems. They all lived in households with animals of various species. The important role of animals in the life of people with mental problems became very clear.
Significant findings are reported, for instance, in connection with war veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and the influence of their dogs. The veterans’ four-legged friends helped them to relax more, reducing their worries, irritability and sense of loneliness. The very presence of animals, as well as the physical contact offered by stroking them, had a positive effect on the veterans.
What also became clear from the studies is that animals offer a 'constant source of comfort and affection' for people with mental disorders. Pet owners pointed out the innate ability of their animals to sense when support is needed in terms of their attention; their companionship; and physical contact. Especially in “times of crisis” for their human owners, they showed their gift/ability to react intuitively to their owners when in need and to provide great emotional support. It was shown that animals were able to distract their owners from disturbing experiences such as suffering panic attacks, helping to reduce memories of traumatic experiences or even suicidal thoughts.
While people with mental problems often find it difficult to open up to other people, they can easily communicate with their pets and are able to express their feelings to their pet because the animal simply listens without judging.
Humans usually cannot view criminals without judging them (even subconsciously), animals however interact with the inmates completely without bias or prejudice. Their impartial presence makes it easier for prisoners to open up, free from the fear of being rejected because of their crime. This is of great importance in the context of animal-assisted interventions which prepare prisoners for life outside prison walls.
Animals ease solitude
Offenders serving longer prison sentences are increasingly confronted with loneliness, and a resulting inability to re-establish contacts and re-socialise in later life. Animals are reported to reduce the feeling of loneliness, giving a little more meaning to life and improving long-term social skills.
In other cases, animals were the ones who enabled their owners to free themselves from their self-created isolation and literally take a step outside to interact with other people.
Not only dogs and cats
In the examples described, it was not only dogs and cats who were the animal companions who gave meaning to life again and helped their owners to recover or become social again but also other species such as rabbits and birds were also featured among these animal heroes.
Adopting an animal
However, if you are considering getting an animal for yourself or a family member, you must be aware that animals are not just friends and comforters. They have individual needs that must not be neglected and do carry a cost factor. Animals may also not be suitable for someone suffering from severe mental issues and a doctor and veterinarian should be consulted regarding taking on an animal as a companion for someone suffering from mental health issues. Having considered this, and decided the conditions are right for an animal to be taken on as a companion, then your first port of call for finding your new companion should be an animal shelter.