The relationship between man and animal dates back centuries. Time has transformed this relationship from being one based on utility to one based on love and family.
Now more than ever, pets are kept for companionship over all else; they are an important and valued part of the family. Dogs and cats have moved from sleeping outside to sleeping next to us in bed.
Through the advancement of scientific research focused on human-animal interaction, we know that this companionship provides a host of benefits – both to the people and animals involved. The Human Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI) is a non-profit organization that funds research into the health benefits of pets and human-animal interaction. HABRI’s vision is for the human-animal bond – the mutually beneficial relationship between pets and people - to become universally embraced as an essential element of human wellness, for quality of life, physical and mental health.
For Mental Health Month, HABRI summarized the latest scientific findings on the mental health benefits of the human-animal bond to raise awareness for people who may benefit directly from animal companionship or animal-assisted therapy.
Recent research exploring the benefits of pets and human-animal interaction for mental health has uncovered new benefits for stress, depression, post-traumatic stress and for managing mental health. Now, we have peer-reviewed scientific evidence that tells us:
- Service dogs can help alleviate symptoms in veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD);
- Pets help owners manage their feelings and provide a powerful distraction from the stress of having a mental health problem; and
- Therapy dogs help reduce stress in college students.
Additionally, a recent HABRI-funded study (1) found that veterans living with PTSD exhibited better mental health and well-being if they had a service dog, including:
- Lower overall symptoms of post-traumatic stress
- Lower levels of depression
- Higher levels of life satisfaction
- Higher overall psychological well-being
- Lower levels of social isolation and greater ability to participate in social activities
- Higher levels of resilience
- Higher levels of companionship
These important findings highlight the efficacy of service dogs as a complementary treatment for PTSD, which adversely affects more than 250,000 (30 percent) of post 9/11 war veterans, with an alarming 22 suicides per day (2).
Everyone living with a mental illness should have access to care, services, and supports that would benefit their mental health, including interaction with a companion animal. Research supporting the benefits of pets for people of all ages and health conditions is growing.
The more people learn about the health benefits of the human-animal bond, the more likely we are to see an increase in pet-friendly workplaces, apartment buildings and pets in the classroom, and therapy animals welcome in nursing homes, hospitals, college campuses and beyond.
Just like the relationship between animals and humans has evolved over time, the relationship between pets and human health can grow too.
As society faces mental health issues like loneliness, depression, post-traumatic stress, anxiety and more, the role of companion animals should expand through research, education and advocacy.
Steven Feldman is Executive Director of the Human Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI). To learn more about HABRI, please visit www.habri.org.
(1) Results of the highly-anticipated HABRI-funded study, Preliminary efficacy of service dogs as a complementary treatment for posttraumatic stress disorder in military members and veterans, have been published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology.
(2) “Suicide Data Report,” Department of Veterans Affairs, Mental Health Services, Suicide Prevention Program, Janet Kemp, RN PhD & Robert Bossarte, PhD., (Rev. April 2016).