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Humans' best friend in a crisis? by Dr Poppy Gibson

This blog considers the positive role that animals and pets can play in our lives, especially in supporting feelings of anxiety.

The relationship between humans and animals has been proven to support psychological and physical well-being. Animal-Assisted Activities (AAA) refer to any interaction with animals, including pet ownership. One strand of AAA, Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT), involves exposing individuals to animals to support mental health issues such as anxiety, stress, depression, or trauma. When defining mental health and well-being, where good mental health means that individuals can think, process emotions, and react positively to experiences, well-being represents how happy and satisfied individuals feel and how they can function both personally and socially as a result of contentment with their life.

Did you know…?

AAT involves exposing individuals to animals to support mental health, such as anxiety, stress, depression, or trauma. In AAT, a range of animals has been used, with dogs and horses being the most frequent, although other farm animals, including chickens, have also been included in clinical therapies.

Some schools, prisons, and hospitals host animals in the grounds, and studies show that when individuals spend time with animals, there can be scientific improvements in well-being, decreasing stress and anxiety levels.

So what can I do?

Research shows that having the opportunities to interact with animals as part of a therapeutic course of treatment can help to reduce anxiety, so if you have a pet, feel glad and prioritise spending some valuable time with them to nurture your own wellbeing.

If you don’t have a pet, could you consider if you could purchase a small and lower maintenance pet, such as a hamster, some guinea pigs, rats, tortoise, or fish? Being around animals, taking responsibility for them and caring for them, also nurtures our wellbeing and gives us further purpose in our lives as we take on the care of a creature in our home.

If you don’t have a pet, and you know you would not be able to support one, is there a friend, neighbour or family member whose pet you could borrow (offer a dog walk, to cat sit for a night, or to look after their furry, scaly or feathered pet for a weekend if appropriate).

There are also charities, such as Pets as Therapy, who have a range of volunteers and their pets that visit settings such as university campuses, where the animals, such as dogs, are brought for a couple of hours each week to allow people without pets to engage with animals.

Animals provide a non-judgemental companion that can combat isolation and promote the development of intrapersonal skills such as self-awareness, confidence, and validation.

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