Serotonin and Dopamine, which are neurotransmitters involved in depression, have been shown to increase with time spent loving on a pet. This causes relaxation and calmness, which in turn, diminishes depression. The American Heart Association correlated pet owners, especially dogs, with a lower risk of heart disease and increased life longevity. Owning a dog or horse also encourages exercise and increased energy in the human. How cool is that?
Pets can fulfill the basic human need of touch. Petting, hugging, or holding an animal can quickly calm or soothe stress and anxiety. This is a very optimal coping skill as opposed to overeating, drinking, using drugs, or cutting yourself. I often have clients list positive and effective coping skills. If a pet is in the home I always encourage loving on a pet as a coping skill. When an individual pays attention to a pet their focus of attention moves away from personal problems to the pet. Dogs can look into your eyes and sense your emotional state. I recently heard that when a dog looks into your eyes it is giving you a big hug. I am not biased to the kind of pet that may provide you with love and happiness. If a hedge hog can soothe your anxiety than by all means love on a hedge hog!
In my practice I have worked with many individuals with a history of childhood abuse. Many survivors of abuse have learned that he or she cannot trust other people. Having a pet teaches unconditional love. Pets won’t reject you or abuse you. This in turn teaches a reciprocal, nurturing, and trusting relationship is possible. I’ve heard many people tell me they feel more comfortable with animals than with humans.
There are many prisons and treatment centers which are currently using pets to encourage the building of empathy and a feeling of love with inmates and residents. In some programs the inmates are given dogs to train, to be service dogs for people with disabilities. This is a win- win situation for the inmates who experience the benefits of working with the dogs and the individuals who become the dog’s owners. There are some residential treatment facilities, for adolescents, which have similar programs. I know of one where each resident is given a golden retriever puppy to train while in the program and take home with them at the completion of treatment. There is another, similar program, where the adolescent girls are in charge of training puppies to go to loving homes. These girls have an important reason to get up and face the day.
I am often asked if I can certify a pet as an emotional support dog. The answer is yes. Although people may not understand the difference between a therapy animal, a service animal, and an emotional support animal, they are very different.
A service animal is highly trained to perform tasks which will ease the disability of the owner. Examples include a dog to aid a hearing or vision impaired individual or to warn the individual of impending seizures. The training process takes 18 to 24 months before the animal is deemed ready to be a service animal. Service animals are allowed to accompany their humans in all places where animals are not allowed.
An emotional support animal is intended to improve the mental health of the owner.
A Doctor or Mental Health professional endorses the animal as necessary for an individual’s mental health and writes a letter, or prescription stating the animal is used to calm the individual with a mental health issue. These animals are usually allowed in places where animals are not allowed such as with the human on an airplane, in a rental home, or in a store. This is becoming an abused privilege and I am careful to be sure the human is in need of this animal before certifying it and emotional support animal.
A therapy animal is an animal that is trained, tested, and registered as a therapy animal. This animal is allowed to accompany the human to visit facilities such as nursing homes or other facilities for pet therapy with the residents of the facility. The goal is to improve the mental health and happiness of the residents.
Animals and humans can and do have positive, healthy, and loving relationships. If you are experiencing emotional pain maybe a pet can help soothe your pain. Is a new pet in your future?
Melissa Muller is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor in St. Augustine, FL. Melissa works with families, adolescents, couples and individuals. Melissa has specializations in treating adolescents, eating disorders, trauma, and sexual addictions. In addition she enjoys working with the LGBT community. She often works with families in the crisis of divorce to make the transition as healthy as possible for both the children and the adults in the family.
Call for your appointment today (904) 595-6840.