Mental health: Why a pet can be good for you

October is Mental Health Awareness Month and on 10th October we acknowledge World Mental Health Day, with this year's theme being 'Mental health is a universal human right'.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) says: “Everyone, whoever and wherever they are, has a right to the highest attainable standard of mental health.” The impact of mental health on every aspect of our lives is significant. The WHO states that one in eight people globally live with mental health conditions, impacting their health, well-being, connections with others, and livelihoods. There are also an increasing number of adolescents and young people being affected by mental health conditions. The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) says that in South Africa only one in ten people with mental illness have access to treatment.

Marycke Ackhurst, pet behaviour expert from Hill’s Pet Nutrition, says that the emotional support pets can provide is well researched and documented. Pets are not only able to support our mental health, but they love any additional attention that their parents bestow on them. Anxiety, stress, and depression are emotions that can affect any member of your family, regardless of age. There is evidence that pets can help to reduce these emotions as well as increase their pet parents’ self-esteem. Ackhurst provides some more reasons below on the benefits of having a pet in your home:

  • Younger children often find it difficult to express their feelings, pets can teach children responsibility, altruism, and compassion. They can help provide children with a sense of security and unconditional love and companionship can help make a child feel important and help them develop a positive self-image.
  • For the elderly a pet not only provides companionship but also a purpose, as they need to care for their pet, helping to boost their physical and emotional well-being. Research has shown that for those who live alone, being a pet parent decreases risk of mortality by 33%.
  • Pets have the amazing ability to lift our spirits by just being there while providing us with company. They help us to escape daily stresses and make us laugh, releasing those feel-good endorphins.
  • The unconditional love and comfort that dogs can provide when picking up on our emotions, when humans sometimes just can’t, make them the perfect emotional support and can play a significant role in a treatment process.
  • Pets can help to create a routine and have a calming effect by just stroking them or playing with them.
  • Exercise is well known to be an important aspect for mental health and well-being and having a dog can help to get pet parents out and moving.
Image for illustration purposes only. Source: Hill’s Pet Nutrition

Ackhurst says that as we see the rise of mental health conditions and the stress and strains of living do not seem to be getting any easier, research has revealed that people with pets are happier, have an improved self-esteem and social skills. However, she does caution that having a pet is a big long-term responsibility that should never be considered lightly. “When choosing a pet in a home with children, remember to consider the pet’s temperament and that the overall responsibility will always lie on the parent.”

Individuals who may require emotional support are encouraged to contact the South African Depression and Anxiety Helpline on 0800 567 567

For more on pets and on health, visit Get It Magazine.

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