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How Many Blessings Can You Count? Pets and Our Mental Health!

“Happiness is a warm puppy.” – Charles M. Schulz

Once upon a time, when I was a little girl, I saw a newspaper ad for an opportunity to win a sheepdog. As a young girl, especially one who had never had a dog before, I was extremely excited when I saw the ad. I immediately ran over to my dad to show him the newspaper ad and to beg him to let me enter the contest for a chance to win the sheepdog.

Of course he said yes.

Little did I know at such a young age that he said yes because he obviously knew that my chances of winning this perfectly loveable sheepdog were pretty much zero for me. The apartments we lived in did not allow us to have any pets, so we would never be able to own a dog - as long as we lived there.

That was the beginning of my dog journey - or at least my non-dog journey that I wanted to come true ever since that "win a sheepdog" advertisement.

Today, my dog journey continues, in more tangible ways. Shortly after my husband and I got married, we adopted a Samoyed, named Nakita, from the Humane Society, and we have adopted dogs ever since.

Did you know, just in America there are at least 85 million households with pets? That's 67% of American homes. (Pawlicy Advisor) Furthermore, pet owners are so bonded to their pets that 95% of them say their pets are part of their family. I know that's true, I'm in that high 95%.

According to the National Center for Health Research, animals play an important role in many people's lives. In addition to seeing-eye dogs and dogs that can be trained to detect seizures, animals can also be used in occupational therapy, speech therapy, or physical rehabilitation to help patients recover.

One early research on pets and mental health conducted over 30 years ago by psychologist Alan Beck and psychiatrist Aaron Katcher measured what happens to the body when a person pets a friendly dog and they found that:

- Our blood pressure goes down

- Our heart rate begins to slow down

- Our breathing becomes more regular

- And our muscles relax, as well

If you have a pet, I'm sure you can attest to this.

Let's say you had a bad day at school or work and you walk in the door and you see your pet joyfully anticipating your arrival as you enter the front door. What's going through your mind? I know for me it would be, I need my pet therapy (aka a huge Giant Schnauzer hug). She may not be an officially trained therapy dog, but she is very therapeutic nonetheless.

You might have heard of therapy dogs. These are animals that are trained to be gentle and friendly. They can improve our health by giving us emotional support. Did you know that other animals are trained to give us emotional support as well? These can include animals, such as cats, rabbits, and horses, to name a few.

Therapy dogs are not the same as service dogs. Therapy dogs or animals support our mental health, while service animals are trained to perform specific tasks to help their owner, such as people with disabilities.

When I worked in the Wellness Center at Point Loma Nazarene University one of our counselors, Rebecca Carter, started a student outreach event called Paws Awhile where we brought in therapy dogs from the San Diego Humane Society and other organizations. Paws Awhile was for the benefit of the students to help them take a break during finals week. Hundreds of students would come out throughout the event just to pet these adorable dogs of all sizes. Everywhere you looked you'd be sure to see huge smiles as students got their therapy fix. In so doing, their stress and anxiety went down, while their oxytocin levels went up, not to mention serotonin and dopamine.

In fact, scientist have discovered several mental health benefits in connection with pets. In addition, therapist use animals to help their patients - for example, they help them to feel calmer, feel happier, to be more active, and to feel less lonely. For instance, there are equine programs that help teens and their mental health by allowing them to recognize their emotions.

In the classroom setting, dogs have helped children with ADHD to be able to focus their attention, while another study showed children with autism were calmer when they played with guinea pigs. Animals have also been shown to help children have better social skills and learn to share and cooperate with other children. Dr. James Griffin, a child development expert at NIH (National Institutes of Health), said that "animals can become a way of building a bridge for social interactions." And, according to another study, caring for fish helped teens better manage their diabetes, as the routine of caring for the fish was also paired with checking their glucose levels, thereby teens were better able to manage their disease. As you can see, animals help children have better social skills and engage with other children, as well as help youth with better health management. Animals also offer unconditional acceptance and help us feel calm.

Furthermore, animals are used in the hospitals and in nursing homes as a source of comfort and support for their patients. Dr. Ann Berger, a physician and researcher at the NIH Clinical Center says that "dogs are very present" and can help people who are hurting just by sitting with the patient and being loving. She also adds that mindfulness, which includes attention, intention, compassion, and awareness are elements that animals create intuitively.

Clearly, therapy animals improve our well-being in various ways, including our mental and physical health, such as when we are depressed they can elevate our mood. In addition, they help people with bipolar disorder, autism, ADHD, PTSD, and Alzheimer's. Animals can help to reduce pain and anxiety, as well.

For instance, the Mayo Clinic has a Canines Program and they make regular hospital visits that help to reduce the patients stress and anxiety. The simple act of petting a dog or pet can lower our blood pressure.

In addition to the various mental and physical health benefits, pets also help us feel needed, because caring for a pet gives us a sense of purpose and meaning. Furthermore, pets are able to increase our self-esteem and help us be more social and less fearful. Pets can even help us when we feel rejected, according to Newport Academy.

Now, here is something you probably don't think about every day, but conjointly, animals help us create healthy habits. Having a pet means having responsibility for another living thing. We need to get up and take care of them, feed them, clean up after them, train them, and walk them. This means we need to get out of the house and walk our dogs. Furthermore, we have to take care of ourselves, in order to have the strength to take care of our pets. It means having a routine, because pets need consistency.

For my family and me, it means getting up and feeding our dogs and letting them go out. We get out of the house at least twice a day to walk our dogs. We know that when the clock hits 4 o'clock it's time to feed the dogs, and they know it. But, dogs also provide that emotional bond and memories and they help us to be present, they help us to be mindful and in the moment. In some ways, they help us feel alive. Our first dog, Nakita, lived with us for 16 years before she passed away. Those were crucial times, in that when I think of Nakita, I think of the memories she left my family and me, when our kids were just little. I think of the unconditional love Nakita gave us and the trips we took with her. Priceless!

What about you? How has having a pet in your home during this difficult COVID season affected your well-being?

If you have a pet in your home, how has your pet been a blessing to you during this time?

  1. Our pets can serve as a form of therapy, as they can sense our emotions. They listen and they don't talk back or judge us. They accept us and love unconditionally. (NOTE: This does not replace our "therapist" in any way.)

  2. Our pets can help us keep to a routine, as we get up and feed them and take them for walks. This is great for our health, as it helps us start our day on a happy note and it gets us out of the house, into the fresh air, and gets us physically active, not to mention possibly running into other social encounters.

  3. Pets are funny and make us laugh, whether they are giving us that puppy look or rolling around on their backs with their tummies ready for a rub from their owner, keeping us smiling and laughing is one sure way to ward off stress and anxiety and a good mood-lifter.

  4. Pets also help us feel less isolated or lonely, especially during this past season when we've had to shelter-in-place and we've had more screen time than actual physical human-contact.

“True compassion is showing Kindness towards animals, without expecting anything in return” ― Paul Oxton

“Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.” ― Anatole France

“Having a dog will bless you with many of the happiest days of your life, and one of the worst.” – Unknown

Everyone thinks they have the best dog. And none of them are wrong. W.R. Purche

Have you hugged your pet today?

The righteous care for the needs of their animals. Proverbs 12:10



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