Do Animals Make Us Happy?

If you’ve ever had a pet or struck up a friendship with someone else’s, you’ll probably already know the following fact: animals make us happy. Friendly animals, that is. Some people believe that humans have developed a deep bond with other animals over many generations, and that this inbuilt understanding is the reason we feel happy and calm around them.

Pampering Pets

There hasn’t been much research into the long-term effects of being around animals, but lots of scientific studies have shown that spending time with animals can temporarily calm people and increase the release of oxytocin – a chemical linked to feelings of happiness – in the brain. Oxytocin reduces stress and even eases physical pain, and the effects last for several hours. Contact with well-behaved and gentle animals can also reduce blood pressure and improve heart health.

The earliest documented example of animals being used to help improve wellbeing is from the late 1700s, when a retreat in England encouraged patients to walk around outside and interact with a collection of domestic animals. In the 1800s, animals began to make an appearance on hospital wards, boosting the mood of both patients and staff.

Florence Nightingale, the famous 19th-century nurse who brought in many methods and practices still used by nurses today, wrote in her book Notes on Nursing, that the presence of small animals reduced anxiety and helped patients in their recovery. In fact, Flo herself had a pet owl named Athena!

Animal-Assisted Therapy

The effect of animals on humans is so significant that some are trained specifically to help people become healthier and happier. This is known as animal-assisted therapy (AAT). Therapy animals now go out to schools, universities, hospitals, homes, treatment centres and even disaster zones with their handlers to provide people with comfort during difficult times. Most AAT involves interaction with dogs – known as canine therapy – but other animals like goats, pigs, rabbits, birds and fish can also do the job.

Another popular type of AAT is hippotherapy.

Saaay whaaat? Ed

Thankfully this involves horses, not hippos – ‘hippo’ comes from the ancient Greek for horse, and hippopotamus means ‘horse of the river’. (Ah okay!)

Hippotherapy can either take the form of riding for exercise and movement, or just spending time with horses. As herd animals, horses are very sensitive to signals from others; therapy horses respond to the emotions and body language of the people near them and can change their behaviour to build trusting relationships.

Like horses, most animals are very sensitive to their surroundings and often pick up on potential danger much sooner than humans. Seeing an animal calm and happy can help reassure anxious and stressed people that they’re safe and that everything’s OK.

Reassurance and Recovery

People who have been involved in highly stressful situations sometimes develop a condition called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD can cause anxiety, upsetting flashbacks and nightmares, and often make day-to-day life difficult. Specially-trained service dogs provide comfort and companionship for people with PTSD on days when they don’t feel they can leave the house, and give them confidence when they do head outside. Dogs need to exercise and socialise, so they give their owners a reason to get up and head to the nearest green space. PTSD service dogs can even wake people from nightmares and nudge them to bring them back to the present moment if they zone out.

When elderly people move into nursing homes, the huge change can cause them to become nervous or unhappy or to withdraw into themselves. If friends and relatives can only visit occasionally, the lack of company and familiar faces can be really distressing. Bringing animals into the home gives the residents an opportunity for interaction, fun and affection. A visiting animal might also bring back happy memories of a pet and encourage residents to get up and join in with physical activities. Therapists and other health workers are also seen as friendlier and more approachable if they bring an animal with them.

Judgement-Free Zone

Some people find it hard to communicate their thoughts and feelings with others, whether that’s because of a condition such as autism, or because of something that happened in their past.

Animals provide companionship without any chance of the person being judged, encouraging them to speak out and share what’s on their mind.

The non-judgmental company of animals also helps children and adults who struggle with reading. Some animal shelters have started inviting people to come and read to their dogs and cats. Not only does it allow people to practise reading out loud without worrying about another person listening and criticising them, it also provides the animals with extra company and affection.

Pet therapy isn’t for everyone – being in a room with an animal you’re scared of or allergic to is unlikely to make you feel better. When the right person meets the right animal, though, the connection can make a huge difference and bring real happiness to them both. If you’ve got a cuddly pet nearby, you should go and give them a pat right now – science says so!

Illustration: Gordy Wright

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Words: Victoria Williams. Illustration: Gordy Wright