When Kara* went to a medical building in her area for a bone-density test recently, she was shocked to find a koi pond in the lobby.
“It literally divided the waiting area in two,” she said. “It ran almost the length of the building.”
She then realized that even though this clinic’s pond was by far the most dramatic, nearly all of the doctor and dentist offices that she had visited recently had aquariums in their waiting rooms.
The reason many healthcare clinics have fish in their waiting areas may surprise you: fish can sooth your mental health and calm your mood. A study conducted by scientists at Britain’s National Marine Aquarium, Plymouth University and the University of Exeter, that was published in Environment & Behavior, found viewing aquarium displays led to reductions in blood pressure and heart rate, and that higher numbers of fish helped to hold people’s attention for longer and improve their moods.
Pets & Mental Health
And it’s not just fish. Pets of all kinds help with health – both physical and mental.
Kara, a dog owner herself, agreed enthusiastically: “Pets bring us such joy. They comfort us. They are part of our family.”
The non-profit UK Mental Health Foundation shares some of the many ways that pets help our mental health. For example, when patients with Alzheimer’s disease have a pet, they are “thought to have fewer anxious outbursts.”
Additionally, dogs encourage their owners to get more exercise, and walking a dog may lead to interactions with other dog owners.
The same group even carried out a study with a cat-focused organization of more than 600 cat- and non-cat-owning participants, half of who described themselves as currently struggling with a mental health issue. “The survey found that 87% of people who owned a cat felt it had a positive impact on their well-being, while 76% said they could cope with everyday life much better thanks to the company of their feline friends. Half of the cat owners felt that it was their cat’s presence and companionship that was most helpful. A third described stroking a cat as a calming and helpful activity.”
The National Institutes of Health for the past ten years has worked with the Mars Corporation’s WALTHAM Centre to fund studies focused on our relationships with animals, using large-scale surveys to find out what kinds of pets people live with and how they benefit from their relationship with their pet.
“We’re trying to tap into the subjective quality of the relationship with the animal – that part of the bond that people feel with animals – and how that translates into some of the health benefits,” explains Dr. James Griffin, a child development expert at NIH.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention acknowledge the many health benefits of pet ownership, which include:
- Decreased blood pressure
- Decreased cholesterol levels
- Decreased triglyceride levels
- Decreased feelings of loneliness
- Increased opportunities for exercise and outdoor activities
- Increased opportunities for socialization
“My dog can sometimes get me out of my own head,” says Kara. “If I am feeling blue, even just scratching the dog’s ears makes me forget my worries. I become so involved in his joy, in watching his tail wag, that I can’t help but feel a little better.”
Pets for Depression & Anxiety
Researchers reported recently in the Journal of Psychiatric Research that adopting a pet “enhanced” the effects of anti-depressant medication for a significant minority of their participants with treatment-resistant depression.
In the study, outpatients with severe treatment-resistant depression were encouraged to adopt a pet in addition to continuing their medications as usual. Of the participants, 25 agreed to adopt a dog or dogs, while 7 adopted a cat. The 33 patients who chose not to adopt a pet were used to form a control group to compare results to.
By the end of the study, more than a third of the pet-adoption group experienced a reduction in depression symptoms. In fact, on the HAM-D depression measurement scale, their level of depression was now considered only mild. Improvements in this pet adoption group were rapid, showing up at week four of the study. By contrast, no patient in the control group showed any signs of change in their symptoms.
Pets are a Key Component of 2019 Mental Health Awareness Month Observance
Mental Health Awareness Month began 70 years ago, and every year Mental Health America, the group that founded the observance, focuses on a particular aspect of the issues surrounding mental health. This year’s theme, #4Mind4Body looks at some common tools and strategies including animal companionship (i.e., pets and support animals), and how they improve physical and mental health.
According to Mental Health America, “The company of animals – whether as pets or service animals – can have a profound impact on a person’s quality of life and ability to recover from illnesses. A pet can be a source of comfort and can help us to live mentally healthier lives.”
Even just being around animals can help. Visit a zoo or an aquarium, walk your neighbor’s dog, get out into nature. Or show up early for your next doctor’s appointment and spend some time watching the fish.
“I was mesmerized by the koi while I waited for my test,” said Kara. “And while I knew koi brought good luck, fortune, and spiritual benefits, I am glad to know I never have to be anxious before a doctor’s appointment again!”
*Not her real name