The US-based NIMH (National Institute of Mental Health) has an excellent website packed with information on different mental health conditions and approaches to treatment. Quoting a relatively recent paper by Nimer & Lundahl (Nimer J, Lundahl B. Animal-assisted therapy: a meta-analysis. Anthrozoos: A Multidisciplinary Journal of the Interactions of People and Animals. 2007 Sept; 20(3): 225-238), NIMH’s section on animal-assisted therapy says the following:
‘Working with animals, such as horses, dogs, or cats, may help some people cope with trauma, develop empathy, and encourage better communication. Companion animals are sometimes introduced in hospitals, psychiatric wards, nursing homes, and other places where they may bring comfort and have a mild therapeutic effect. Animal-assisted therapy has also been used as an added therapy for children with mental disorders. Research on the approach is limited, but a recent study found it to be moderately effective in easing behavioral problems and promoting emotional well-being.’
From personal experience, I find ‘pet therapy’ to be an essential ingredient in keeping well. Having a dog that needs lots of exercise means that I have to go outside and exercise even on those days when I find it difficult to face the world. Exercise is of itself important in managing mental health, but the process of interacting with a pet provides added therapeutic value. In this respect I think of our Labrador – she is always seemingly deliriously happy, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and is very much the perfect antidote to the vagaries of bipolar disorder. For others, it might be a cat or hamster that functions as a ‘therapy pet’. Whatever the specifics, I think we owe a debt of gratitude to our animal friends who enrich our lives and accompany us on our journey to recovery and wellness.