If you’ve ever pet a soft animal like a dog, cat, or bunny when you’re upset, you probably know firsthand how calming animals can be.
People gain a lot from cuddling with their pets, but “animal assisted intervention” – or pet therapy – can be much more than that. Many people are helped through equine therapy, which involves caring for horses. People are also helped by tending to crickets, playing with dolphins, and gazing at fish. Even just watching videos of animals can help you feel better.
How does all of this help? On a physical level, spending time with animals can increase our immune functioning, lower heart rate and blood pressure, and decrease pain. On an emotional level, interactions with animals can help to decrease loneliness, increase happiness, calm anxiety, ease social discomfort, and reduce emotional pain. In fact, researchers at Washington State University recently found that petting a dog or cat for 10 minutes can significantly reduce cortisol (your body’s main stress hormone).
Although no one knows for sure what makes interactions with animals so helpful, there are a number of theories. Many supporters of pet therapy believe that it can be explained by the biophilia hypothesis, which was first proposed in 1984 by noted biologist E. O. Wilson. It states that people are naturally attracted to other living creatures, and so observing them is relaxing. Learning theory suggests that animals distract people from the things that upset them, allowing them feel calmer. By repeating this over time, they become less anxious.
Another theory suggests that animals facilitate social engagement and meet some social needs. When you are around some animals, you are more likely to smile, talk with, and have a good time with others. This reaction is similar to how people often respond to infants or young children.
If you’re interested in getting a pet, there are a spectrum of options. Whether you choose the traditional cat, dog, or hamster, or the less conventional snake, ferret, or turtle, keep in mind that just as people differ in their temperaments and needs, animals do, too. So it is important that you find a pet that is a good fit with you and your lifestyle.
To enjoy animals without taking on the full responsibility of owning one, you could consider volunteering at an animal shelter, fostering an animal, or participating in the training of service animals, such as guide dogs for the blind. These are great ways to test out whether you are interested in getting a pet or are wonderful long-term options for including animals into your life.
If you are often anxious, depressed, stressed, or feel lonely, there are many ways to help yourself. As you consider how best to address your struggles, you may benefit a lot by finding ways to include animals in your life.