IT’S very common for humans to have strong, emotional bonds with their pets and other animals.
It’s even seen on the big screen – for example, in movies like John Wick, I am Legend, or even Stuart Little and Alvin and the Chipmunks. Whether they have fur, scales, feathers, paws, claws or hooves, animals can play a crucial role in helping humans feel good.
Newsday chatted with veterinary staff, psychologists, pet owners, organisations that offer therapeutic services using animals, in addition to extensive research to provide more insight.
Psychologist Erika Friedman of the US, in 1990, did a study on the ways pet ownership benefits one’s health – The Value of Pets for Health and Recovery. Her findings showed animals can decrease feelings of anxiety, loneliness and depression in humans as they provide a “pleasant external focus for attention and a source of contact comfort.”
They may also improve humans’ physical health. For instance, someone who regularly takes their animal for a walk or jog, or plays a game of fetch with it. It allows both the human and the animal to engage in physical activity. And physical activity releases hormones called endorphins, which decrease pain and trigger positive feelings.
Sindy Chapman, who has been working as a veterinary technician in TT for over a year, told Newsday most people that come in have a very close relationship with their pets.
“They’re family, so it’s usually very evident how much they’re valued and I’ve heard people talk about how much they (the animals) help (with managing emotions).”
She said she, too, can vouch for pets positively contributing to one’s mental health because of the “single best thing that ever happened” to her – her pet dog, Honey.
“I feel like I take better care of her than I do myself. She sleeps in my bed.
“Just seeing her helps me to relax, most days. The excitement and the unconditional love is enough to make things seem better.”
In addition to dogs and cats, she has tended to hamsters, birds, rabbits, deer and livestock.
Other than regular pets, some people with mental health challenges and conditions have certified emotional support animals. These are animals trained to deal with a person with particular challenges. For instance, an anxiety patient’s animal would be trained how to comfort the person during an anxiety attack and prevent them from injuring themselves. They’re usually allowed to accompany the person on plane rides, while shopping at stores and even school or work.
Clinical psychologist Tara Jackman reminisced on the six years she worked in the US, which was when she worked with clients with emotional support dogs.
“Just from a physiological standpoint, they (animals) actually help reduce cortisone levels, which is the stress hormone and it helps elevate our happiness hormones which is oxytocin.
“Just interacting with an animal or a pet just does that naturally. Even without thinking ‘Okay, I’m doing this to feel less stressed’ it already happens naturally.”
She said she also had a number of clients who were US veterans who depended on the animals to go about daily life.
“One of the guys were having a flashback of their time in the war and the dog would have helped him during that moment.
“Overall, companionship, something to love, something that loves you unconditionally, all of these things help you manage stress.”
She also mentioned a popular form of animal therapy known as hippotherapy or equine therapy. This refers to the therapeutic use of horses.
In TT, there is a non-profit organisation called Horses Helping Humans (HHH) that does exactly that.
Founding member Helen Stollmeyer told Newsday the experience has been wonderful, and that it feels good to be able to assist with putting a smile on the people’s faces.
She is a certified speech-language pathologist and yoga teacher. The organisation was formed in 1999 in Miami, Florida in the US and she brought it to TT in 2012 with her husband Ernest Matthews.
While they typically focus on children with autism and special needs, Stollmeyer said the services are open to the general public.
“Horses are so amazing when it comes to feeling so much more peaceful and better about yourself.
“They have an amazing way to calm people down, no matter where they come in, everybody leaves happy, smiling, peaceful and feeling like they had an intimate amazing experience with the horses.”
They currently have nine therapy horses. She said through interactions such as feeding, grooming and riding the horses are what makes it so therapeutic.
“It’s healing for horses as well, we are a sanctuary for these horses.
“They (humans) get to understand they are individuals with individual personalities. It’s a very mental experience.”
Newsday also asked its social media audience to share their experiences with animals and how they helped cope with stress, anxiety and sadness.
Jonathan De Silva said, “Being around them helps me relax or take my mind off things for a minute. I might go outside and play with them or just sit and pet them and somehow their joy and energy while interacting with them transfers to me and I’m good for a while.”
Sara Raveena said hugging animals helps her a lot as they are a “natural ball of energy.
“Especially when they rub their heads on you or just come next to you and lay down. That tiny creature loves you and thinks you’re perfect. So maybe everything isn’t all bad in the world. And they love you even when you don’t love yourself.”
But Facebook user Teddy Beans told Newsday he owns 26 dogs, five cats and one parrot. He lost his hearing when he was nine years old and said his animals give him hope.
“There is not really any stress in my life but without animals – yes, (it’s) a different thing.
“They give me hope each day and put a smile on my face. In times like we are facing, it makes you forget about the things that are happening. (Human) friends come and go but dogs stay a lifetime.
Shannon Yip Ying said one of her birds would sing for her whenever she’s sad and sits next to him.
“He would play peek-a-boo with my hair while cooking and sit on my desk while I game. Animals are truly wonderful gifts that I’ll cherish always.”
Another user who was diagnosed with severe anxiety and high-functioning depression said her pet dog usually helps calm her during anxiety attacks.
“She is always happy and ready to play and that really helps distract me and I am really grateful for her.”
Others mentioned having pets such as squirrels, turtles, goats, hamsters and rabbits. And they all seemed to have the same effect as any common household pet.
But with pets also comes responsibility. The animal’s life is now in your hands. So yes, while they can significantly improve humans’ mental well-being, one must also take good care of them.
There are animal shelters throughout TT such at the TTSPCA (TT Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals), AWN (Animal Welfare Network) and Animals Alive with animals that are waiting to be adopted into loving homes.
So if you’re looking for an additional companion to add some positivity to your life, consider an animal. But ensure that you, too, treat them with love.