Animals and Our Wellbeing
Written by Ashley Costin
“A cat’s purr and a puppy’s wet nose are just two of the things that make my day enjoyable.” ― Anthony T.Hincks
I’m going to begin this article with a true and very personal story.
Many years ago, not long after I had begun my career as a teacher, I had a child in my reception class (Early Years as it’s better known these days) who suffered from severe asthma. She was affected by so many things, poor little soul and was constantly in need of her inhaler. One morning, I received a phone call from mum to say that her daughter had had a particularly acute attack the previous night and had, tragically, passed away.
It was a devastating situation, but I still had a class of 30 five-year-olds to see through that day, so I focussed my thoughts on the children and, from their perspective, our day progressed pretty much as normal.
At that time, my husband and I had a thoroughbred horse called Nature. After school, as we usually did, we drove to the yard where she was stabled, to see her. Without warning, the day’s events overcame me, and our friend, who owned the stables, was of course, immediately concerned by my distress. As soon as he understood the situation, he took me by the hand and led me into Nature’s stable, where he sat me down in the corner on the straw and left me to it.
The experience was extraordinary. Nature knew. Somehow, she understood my anguish. She gently nuzzled me and huffed softly through her nose at me, where I sat miserably in my corner. I’m not sure how long I sat there, but by the time our friend arrived with a mug of tea, Nature had soothed and calmed me. There’s no doubt in my mind, that she helped me to cope through that difficult time.
And mine is by no means the only story of this kind. Only recently, I saw a report on the news where a lady in a care home - who had, as a younger person, worked on a farm - wished she could see an animal again. The care home arranged for her to have a visit from a beautiful grey horse, and the expression of joy on the lady’s face spoke absolute volumes.
Animal Influence in Our Lives
The idea that animals are beneficial to human wellbeing is by no means a new one; as early as the 19th Century people were putting forward theories to this effect. So, what is it about animals that can make their influence in our lives so incredibly powerful? There have been a number of studies into animals and the positive effects they can have on us both physically and mentally, and one such was carried out by the Mental Health Foundation in conjunction with Cats Protection in 2011. They reported that the study ‘…involved over 600 cat- and non-cat-owning respondents, with half of them describing themselves as currently having a mental health problem. The survey found that 87% of people who owned a cat felt it had a positive impact on their wellbeing, while 76% said they could cope with everyday life much better thanks to the company of their feline friends.’
Now, more than ever, with the advent of Covid 19 and all the stresses and strains it has placed on people’s lives, we are having to come to terms with exactly how vital it is to take care of our mental health as much as our physical wellbeing. It’s amazing, under the current circumstances, how much people have turned to nature in the last few months; how we’ve realized the calming benefits of watching birds in our gardens, or the excitement of hunting for butterflies in the park.
Of course, this is as true for our children as it is for us as adults. Children aren’t always terribly adept at expressing how they feel, but there is no doubt that the pandemic has had as much effect on children’s mental health as on that of their parents or carers. Having an animal to think about, talk to and share feelings with can help to give children an important, non-judgemental outlet, especially since animals are known for giving their love unconditionally.
How Can Animals Help?
At the base of our brains there is a small gland known as the pituitary gland, which releases a hormone called Oxytocin. This is sometimes also known as the ‘cuddle’ or ‘love’ hormone, because it’s released when we cuddle, or when we connect with someone socially. Studies indicate that this hormone is also released when we pet, or bond with an animal, which indicates that there is a real, physiological benefit to stroking say a cat or rabbit for example, or even just to having an animal sitting calmy by your side.
Another fairly obvious benefit of having an animal such as a dog, or a horse is the exercise it provides, especially as it’s well documented that exercise can help with all kinds of mental health problems such as anxiety or depression.
It’s vitally important that I emphasise here, having an animal is a long-term commitment, for the duration of its natural life. Properly caring for any animal can be expensive and time consuming and is not something to enter into lightly!
Not everyone has the right circumstances to keep an animal of their own, but there are a huge number of rescue centres all over the country, and willing volunteers are often welcomed with open arms.
Walking your dog, or helping out in a local animal centre are activities that also offer a brilliant opportunity to meet people, and social interaction has been shown to be extremely beneficial for our wellbeing on all sorts of levels.
For both children and adults, having a pet, or regular contact with an animal can be a positive experience in so many ways. Research has been done for example into using dogs as reading buddies, for children who are anxious, or lacking in confidence with their reading. Reading out loud to an animal is far less stressful, it would seem, than reading out loud to an adult. Perhaps this is because animals aren’t critical, or maybe it’s the calming effect they can have that allows children to relax more and feel at ease reading to them.
Animals, in general, respond well to having a routine, and I believe that most children feel secure when they have a regular routine too. Whether you’re a child or an adult, there is evidence to suggest that providing care for an animal can enhance motivation and provide a sense of purpose. This could be especially effective for children with learning or behavioural challenges such as Autism or ADHD.
As with all things, various strategies work well for some people and not so much for others, but I definitely believe there is a place in our lives for well cared for and loved animals to love and care for us back.
Stay safe and well as always.
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