As Action Mental Health continues to mark Mental Health Awareness Week, it’s time to embrace the benefits of something that most of us couldn’t’ do without in nature – our furred, feathered, scaled or hooved friends.
Animals are a great boon to humans, with dogs even being coined ‘man’s best friend’. That well-known phrase can mean different things to different people and the same can be said of whichever creature we choose to bring into our lives and our homes, share our personal space and treat as one of the family. Fish or feline, horse or hamster, communing with animals is known to provide myriad benefits to a person’s mental health and well-being.
When the lockdown struck, pet ownership spiralled across the world, with an estimated three million animals being acquired as companion pets.
Not only did the spike in pet ownership – especially dogs – help families, especially those with children, robbed of their daily routine at work and school, it also proved a lifesaver for those who faced the looming, indeterminate days of lockdown ahead of them, on their own.
When we were all restricted to life indoors last March, walking our dogs was one of the few freedoms we had to look forward to.
Pets, especially dogs and cats, can play an important part in helping us cope with our busy lives, helping to reduce stress, anxiety and depression. Physically, the act of stroking a pet can help lower a person’s heart rate and promotes the release of oxytocin – the same hormone generated when a mother looks at or touches her baby. Stroking not only has a calming effect on a pet owner, it works both ways – stroking can also calm the pet too.
Dogs and people began living together 15,000 years ago and ever since, the connection between humans and canines has developed to a mutually beneficial one, causing King Frederick of Prussia, in 1789, to coin that famous term about dogs being man’s best friend. Both species are social beings, unable to thrive alone.
Equally, cat lovers can attest to the companionship offered by their feline. Ask any cat owner and they’ll say their cat can help put a bad day behind them, following a session of stroking them. Cat owners can vouch for the science that proves that their cat’s purr can calm the nervous system and lower blood pressure. Caring for a pet also gives purpose to the day, plus a sense of achievement. It also helps people feel valuable and needed and even helps our children grow up feeling more secure and active.
And just as companion animals reap these many valuable physiological, psychological, and social advantages, these benefits are often especially significant in vulnerable individuals, including those with physical and mental disabilities.
Joanna Miskelly, CDC at AMH New Horizons Downpatrick loves walking with her dog, Brillo.
“Cycling, running and walking with my dog, Brillo, have always been great ways for me to unwind and ‘tune out’ from any worries or stress. I have found these outlets more important than ever since lockdown! I believe that exercising in the fresh air and our beautiful countryside lends itself to both a healthy body and a healthy mind. Even if you are feeling low in energy, a short walk in the great outdoors will almost certainly give you a boost, both mentally and physically.”
AMH New Life Counselling’s Elaine Gormley ticks off two of her Five Ways to Well-Being – keeping active and taking notice – walking with her husband and their dog Coco.
“Every day we go walking with our dog Coco, and the travel restrictions have meant that we have had the opportunity to explore the great parks that Belfast has to offer, including Botanic gardens, Drumglass Park, Musgrave Park, Lagan Meadows and Belvoir forest. Walking with Coco gives us the opportunity to stop, be mindful and smell the roses or daffodils.
One AMH client, who is a volunteer with The Raptor Society in Northern Ireland – which is dedicated to our feathered friends – has a special affinity with birds of prey.
“April finds me with my pair of my treasured binoculars, heading off to locate peregrine falcons. While observing them from a distance I get to know where they have built their nest and if they have found a mate.
“I visit the site regularly to see how many chicks they have had and later on to see if the chicks have fledged. I also make sure the birds are safe and no predators or evidence of predators are found in the surrounding area.
“I love bird watching, as it helps with my mental health whilst I also contribute to nature by keeping an eye on how the birds are doing in the Fermanagh area.”
Karen Calder, from AMH New Horizons Newry connects with nature by visiting her friend, Scarlett the donkey who she found by accident when she got lost.
“I always feel better when I visit her,” she says.
Seánine Currie from AMH New Horizons Antrim loves lambs and was overjoyed recently to enjoy a cuddle with a two week old baby lamb when it was brought to visit.
Oonagh O’Neill of AMH Managing The Challenge has been admiring the local fauna near AMH New Horizons Fermanagh after spotting a lovely family of ten ducklings.
“The mum was keeping her brood safe in the reeds while the drake made sure all was well before they all headed out for their first big swim,” she said.
“It was fascinating to watch this beautiful attention to their offspring and the eagerness of the little ones to head out into the water. Delighted to have had this session of duck therapy!”
Jim Brady, of AMH New Horizons Newry loves a spot of birdwatching but he wonders: “Who’s watching who?”