Life can be tough at times, but the good news is that our favourite furry friends can help us! It’s not just their unconditional love and companionship that helps; animals from rabbits to reptiles have been shown to reduce anxiety and the effect of stresses and strains on our brain and body. They provide a great constant in an ever-changing world.

Happily, animals are not worried by global pandemics or politics – as long as they have food, water, companionship and good care, they are happy and having fun. They must look at us and wonder what all the fuss is about! So, what is it about our beloved pets which makes such a big impact on our health and happiness?

How do pets help mental health?

Pets help to reduce our worry and stress, with the knock-on benefits of reducing blood pressure, heart rate and risk of heart disease. Animal companionship helps to combat loneliness and their love sparks our reciprocal love in return. But how?

  • They calm our mind. Just watching an animal is mindful and soothing to our busy brains in challenging, stressful times.
  • They don’t judge us. Animals can help people talk about their feelings and process them, without fear of judgement. They seem to listen and accept whatever we tell them, and still keep on loving.
  • They are fascinating! Watching another living being can improve attention – just having a fish tank caused people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease to eat better.
  • They cause a release of happy hormones. Stroking and cuddling animals causes a release of oxytocin – the bonding hormone – which makes us feel safe, happy and loved.

What type of pets improve mental health?

Amazingly, it seems even the smallest bug can have a positive effect on mental wellbeing. Just watch a small child fascinated by a ladybird and see the joy and wonder on their face. The benefits of contact with an animal to reduce anxiety have been shown; with stroking both hard-shelled tortoises as well as soft, cuddly bunnies easing our tensions. The same stress-busting effects were not seen with stroking a cuddly toy, however, so there’s something about another living being that we find soothing.

A lot of people traditionally think of dogs when they think of therapy pets, but not only do we think rabbits, guinea pigs and hamsters are cuter, studies back up the benefits of their companionship. Rabbits bond quickly with their owners and will recognise and respond to your voice. Their gentle, sociable and inquisitive nature makes them an ideal emotional support pet.

Children’s mental health and pets

The bond between a loving pet and a child is a special thing. Caring for an animal can help children with low self-esteem and give them meaning and purpose. Pets can even help children learn, through boosting their confidence and interest in books and learning about animals. They can break down social barriers too – having a guinea pig in the classroom helped kids with autism to be more social with other children and smile and laugh more! Even more severe mental health conditions can be eased, such as children with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) benefitting from simply grooming an animal.

Pets as therapy

The great news is the benefits of pets are so well known that animals are being used to help people recover from or cope with mental health problems. Since 1983 the charity, Pets As Therapy has been arranging visits to people with debilitating mental and physical health conditions to help them recover.

Our small, furry friends make ideal therapy pets in the home. They are recommended as emotional support animals due to their quiet, calming, cute and curious nature, and they’re full of personality! Read more about this here

Bunnies are also doing their bit to support mental health in the community through the work of the charity Bunny Besties. By visiting educational settings, homeless shelters, hospices and even libraries, the wonderful team of volunteers introduce their relaxing rabbits to people, helping lower stress and increase joy through life’s challenges.

It seems we humans are wired to benefit from animal interactions, which probably is why animals have been our companions since the dawn of time. And they always will be.