Hello and welcome back. As you’ve probably gathered from the title, this blog post is all about…... pets! I wanted to talk about how our pets can benefit our mental health and general well being.
It occurred to me, earlier this month, during a particularly hard time, how much I rely on my pets. I was lying next to the fire cuddling the latest edition to our dog squad, when I realised that since he’d been there I’d gone from feeling rather desperate and sad, to smiling and feeling all kinds of love.
This got me thinking about Joe, our other dog. It wasn’t so long ago that he was the only thing that got me out of the house. Out of my bed. He got me walking, talking and eventually smiling again.
My family has a farm which means I have an endless supply of animals to distribute my love to.
I’ve always been obsessed with animals, so I decided to use that as motivation to find out more about our relationship and how they can help us.
By definition a therapet is a pet who meets and brings happiness to people who are not in the best of health.
The idea isn’t an entirely new one. For years, dogs have been trained as guide dogs for the blind, some animals have been trained to detect seizures, they’ve also proved an effective way of helping children develop social skills as well as aiding in physical rehab.
However, official studies concerning how animals can benefit our mental health are relatively new. So, why are animals such good therapy for us?
On a basic level, it’s because they're a great company. Not only do they provide unlimited entertainment, they can’t speak and they’re always there to listen, free from judgement.
Thinking back, animals have come a long way from their practical functions as hunters, security and transportation. Now, they're companions and much loved family members.
As the relationship has become more domesticated, animals have come to understand us more than we realise. Take dogs for instance. They’ve come to understand some of the words we use, whether it be a command or a treat, and can interpret what we say based on the tone of our voice.
They’ve become so attuned to our emotions and behaviour that they can gauge how we feel.
Touch and movement are considered to be effective sensory stress relief. Simply stroking a dog has been scientifically proven to reduce heart rate, blood pressure and has gone as far as to prove that those who have previously suffered a heart attack, are less likely to have another.
Caring for a pet can generously improve your physical health, which we know has an influence over our mental state.
Take a dog or horse for instance. They need regular exercise which requires you to be active yourself.
They don’t understand nor care if you can’t be bothered or feel unable to do something. They need to be fed and they need to walk. Personally, that accountability is a huge motivator for me. If what I do is going to impact someone other than myself, there’s more chance I’ll follow through with it.
Adding more exercise to your routine is a welcome lifestyle change that can ease symptoms of depression, anxiety, PTSD and bipolar disorder to name but a few conditions from which many of our service users suffer.
Caring for an animal helps you feel needed and wanted. The companionship element is hugely beneficial in combating loneliness and isolation, which can often be triggers for the likes of anxiety and depression.
Pets are also an ideal social lubricant. Whether that happens during training classes, vet visits, walks, competitions etc, they help to establish and develop connections with people.
Mindfulness: a word I’m sure you’re all familiar with. I’m not going to go into the ins and outs of it, that's a whole other blog post, but I will explain its relevance to this subject.
At its most basic level, mindfulness is about attention, intention, compassion and awareness. It’s about living our lives presently and mindfully. A concept that humans have to learn and practice. Animals however are innately mindful.
They live completely in the present. Living for ‘now’. This in turn, forces us to recognise and think like they do, when trying to reason or understand our pets.
Not all animals are the same. Like people, animals have their own anxieties and curiosities but they are naturally mindful. They don’t tend to dwell or overthink things like we humans do.
We could learn a lot from our furry friends.
I’m not suggesting by any means that you pop out and get yourself a puppy. While pets bring many benefits, they’re not suited to everyone’s lifestyle. There are alternatives, that I'll touch on towards the end.
I reached out to the people at Canine Concern Scotland, a charity that uses therapets to visit various groups of people. From care homes and hospitals to schools and colleges.
As well as visits, they also give educational talks in schools, community groups etc, and attend Borders events where possible.
Canine Concern supports the research of animals and their effect on mental health, dementia and other conditions. They also work to provide education on the responsibilities and safety involved when looking after dogs, advocating the importance of animal welfare.
With approximately 1000 active therapets across Scotland, they provide light relief for so many people.
In some cases, the therapets are the person's only visitors, so the relationship is valuable.
“Sometimes small miracles occur - people who have never spoken, turned the faces to the wall in fact - magically come to life at the appearance of a dog.”
Canine Concern's funding comes from donations, legacies, membership fees and fundraising. Would you like to get involved?
“Do you own a friendly, outgoing, though not too boisterous dog, who loves to have a fuss made of him? Then perhaps you might like to think about registering him in our therapet visiting programme.”
Owners must insure the animals health - annual health checks and regular veterinary check ups.
All sizes and types of dogs are suitable. The only vital statistic being that they have a steady and happy temperament and at least a year old.
Like with most types of volunteering, much of the success is down to regularity. With that, volunteer owners are expected to dedicate time to visiting, whether it be monthly, weekly or what suits them and the service user.
For more information on Canine Concern Scotland, see their website at https://www.canineconcernscotland.org.uk/
Some other ideas you might like to consider:
You could give your time to a local animal shelter or charity.
Do your neighbours have any pets? Why not get to know them? Arrange time to spend with it. The best part is, you can give them back!
Adoption is also a way to go. There are so many cats and dogs in need of temporary housing. It could be exactly what both of you need!
In keeping with this post, I thought it would be nice to introduce you to some of our own pets that keep us going.
ALEX’S DOG, REMUS
Hello there, I'm Remus, pleased to meet you.
I am my family's first child I'm very handsome and I love to give my human cuddles when he’s feeling low.
Sometimes I bark at my own shadow not realising it’s just me. I’m waiting for dog glasses to happen but they're taking their sweet time.
Love when the snow is here but beach walks are my absolute favourite and I love proving that there is life in the old dog yet.
ALEX’S PONY, LUNA
Hello, I’m Luna, Remus’ sister.
Alex, my human, rescued me and now I live a happy life with my family in a nice big green field where my family feed me and make me and my horsey siblings look pretty.
I’m a gentle gal who loves a good selfie. Alex loves to groom and give me cuddles, which suits me fine as I love being pampered.
ANGELA’S CHICKEN, SHITHEAD
“Whenever I'm having a bad day I just pop out into my garden and chat to my chickens.”
Hiya, I'm a chicken who goes by the name of Shithead because I like to stress my human out by escaping from my coop.
I only ever stay away for a night and love coming home to see her reaction. I get away with my behaviour because I lay the best eggs. They’re big and blue and my family loves them.
My favourite foods are frogs, yogurt and pasta worms that my human calls spaghetti.
My favourite human food is pizza and I will fight the others to get what I want. I definitely rule the roost. Pun intended.
ELLEN’S CAT, DOLLY
I’m Dolly and I’m a farm cat who’s job is to catch the mices.
I love hunting and bringing back my catch to show my family. Life at the farm has definitely spiced up since I arrived.
As princess of the house, I always get what I want, all I have to do is call and my human comes running.
I like my own company but I spend a lot of time with my friend Joe. People think we're an odd pair but who's Piglet without Pooh?
I may be cute but don’t be fooled for I am fierce.
ELLEN’S PUP, JOE
I’m Joe and I'm excited about everything like all the time!!!!!!!!!
Ellen is my fav human because she gives the best cuddles and lets me sit on her. I love when we go walkies because Dolly comes with us and we play games.
My cuddles are powerful, mainly because I'm a big strong boy now, but Ellen says I'm perfect and lets me away with everything. Even when I roll in poo or make her drop things.
My best feature is my smile and although I have absolutely no concept of personal space or when I’m invading it, I’m a really good boy who is to pure for this word. At least that's what Ellen says.