Bringing a pet into your home comes with many considerations. As a Psychotherapist who practices Animal Assisted Therapy with my 4-legged teammate, Leah, I have seen the amazing benefits an animal can bring to a therapy session. Studies have shown that cortisol levels (the stress hormone) decrease significantly when there is an animal in the room. For your child’s mental health, having a pet can add major protective factors. A family pet can lower stress levels in the home, help build positive experiences, and the animal can also be an anchor to start difficult conversations.
Why Does Having A Pet Help
Pets can help with maintaining good mental health by decreasing emotional, physical, and environmental vulnerabilities. To decrease vulnerabilities, it is important to build up a tolerance to difficult situations. One way to do this is to accumulating positive experiences! Focusing on the cute, funny, or sweet things pets do can add to our ability to handle negative situations by helping us “fill up” with positive feelings on a daily basis. Pets can also reduce loneliness and promote social connection. They teach us how to be gentle, forgiving, fun, and let go of shame.
Pets Model Good Social and Coping Skills
In therapy, the child-pet relationship can illustrate how to apply what we discuss in sessions to the outside world. Pets can model social skills in new situations, help build empathy and compassion, and they can serve as a non-judgmental friend that listens and provides compassion. Pets are also a great conversation starter when explaining difficult emotions such as guilt, shame, jealousy, and anxiety (my pup is terrified of fireworks). By discussing the emotion the animal is having, children can better identify their own feelings and work towards developing their own self-soothing techniques.
You can also practice the skill of coping ahead with your pet. For example, before taking my dog on an adventure I need to look up the weather, the rules for where we are going, and make sure I bring the appropriate toys, treat, and leash. I also cope ahead for events that might be stressful for my dog like fireworks on the 4th of July or New Years by identifying ways to calm her anxiety. By practicing coping ahead for a pet, families can learn to do the same before a stressful event like the first day or school, or taking a trip. Asking questions like “what tools will I need to get through this” can set you up for success in navigating distressing situations.
Pets Help to Maintain Healthy Lifestyles
There is a lot of evidence that physical activity is instrumental in both fighting mental illness and in helping us stay mentally healthy. Pets are a great way to incorporate daily movement; playing fetch in the backyard, walks, hiking, playing with toys indoors, exploring parks and doing outdoor dog-friendly activities are great ways to keep your family moving! If you have been thinking about bringing a pet into your home, consider the mental health benefits in making your decision. A family pet can help in many ways, especially in decreasing stress levels, gaining positive experiences, facilitating difficult conversations, and adopting healthier habits.