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A Guide to Having Pets for Anxiety

Service pets for anxietyAnxiety is crippling. It is a serious ailment that can cause more damage to your body than some other chronic illnesses. When someone suffers from anxiety and depression, they often feel hopeless and alone. Many stop socializing or leaving their house. In turn, they lose some of the basic human needs for survival, like love, touch, and socialization. For people with such disorders, there are many ways to cope. Some choose conventional medications, others choose therapy, and some take a more holistic approach, such as using pets for anxiety. It has been said that the unconditional love of a pet can change a life. They’ve proven to be a powerful grounding and healing force for many people. A dog can reduce stress, ease loneliness, encourage exercise, and provide valuable and meaningful companionship.

Although they can’t talk to us or understand what exactly anxiety is and how it disables us, pets—especially dogs—deserve more credit than we give them. They are smart, intuitive, sensitive to feelings, and love unconditionally. They don’t worry about yesterday or what might take place in the future, they live in the moment. Unless a dog is sick or elderly, they will always offer you the biggest smile as you walk through the door.

For these reasons, the mental and physical health benefits provided by pets deserve a bit more attention. If you’ve ever owned a pet, you know how much fun they can be. But have you ever stopped to analyze just how beneficial they really are? There are many reasons why people are turning to pets for anxiety and other physical, mental and emotional disabilities.

The Working Animal

We are all familiar with police dogs, horses that pull carts, and guide dogs for the blind, however, lately you may have heard the term “emotional support animal” or ESA. According to the USA dog registry, an ESA “is an animal that can provide emotional and therapeutic benefits to those suffering from emotional issues including anxiety”. Usually the support animal is a cat or dog, but pigs have also been registered. Whatever the animal, they don’t need specific training to be classified as an ESA. Their natural kind and loving demeanors are enough to provide all the support you need to help you emotionally. Dogs do not have to be licensed or trained to offer health benefits. They may also be classified as companion dogs.

The Benefits of Pets for Anxiety and Depression

If you have anxiety or depression, the world may seem like it’s falling to pieces. When anxiety is all consuming, having a pet jump into your lap and offer love can bring you back to a more balanced thought process. There are many additional benefits to using pets for anxiety:

  • The Motivation of Caring for Another. Although you are feeling down, a dog still needs to be walked, fed, and cared for. The primary needs of pets are often what keep people going day after day. Having responsibility for someone else's well being is often motivating.
  • Unconditional Love. On days when a person is feeling anxious, the mere wag of a happy tail can remind them they are truly loved. Acceptance without judgement by your pet is one of the purest forms of unconditional love. Remember, your pet thinks you are the best thing in the entire world and that’s a valuable asset to have.
  • Offer Companionship. No one wants to feel alone or handle life by themselves. Contact with another being is actually very important and can do wonders to help ease the pain of anxiety. In today’s world, the internet and social media have meant interpersonal relationships are losing connectivity, leading to emotional problems and disorders. A pet is almost always available for affection, and simply just holding or stroking your pet is calming. Animals offer a great resource of love and affection.
  • Provides Structure and Routine. Structure and routine can be very calming for people when they are stressed out. Boredom and continual ruts can increase anxiety levels. Pets require regular feeding and exercise, and can offer consistency. One look from your dog, and you’ll have to get out of bed to care for their needs.
  • Mental Protection. A dog’s natural instinct is to protect their owner. They can actually be trained to use passive methods to block strangers from approaching unexpectedly. They can also be taught how to recognize signs of panic attacks and act accordingly.
  • Therapy pets for anxietyYour Own Personal Therapist. Anxiety sufferers are often told to talk about their worries out loud with friends or a therapist. The therapist's primary job is to listen without judgment or prejudice—which is a wonderful thing—but can be costly and time consuming. Speaking with friends often results in unwanted advice or misunderstanding, since not everyone understands anxiety. Sometimes all you need is to simply be heard. Guess who can do that? Your pet. They will sit there, listen, and love you.
  • A healthy distraction from your thoughts. If you suffer from anxiety, you know how quickly a small thing can escalate in your head and become an all-consuming catastrophe. With pets in the vicinity, you are forced to direct some of your attention on them. When the focus is placed on your pet, it can take your mind off other worries you may have and minimize them. The simple tasks required to take care of a pet can often provide a feeling of mastery when everything else seems out of control.
  • Assistance With Socialization. The thought of socializing can be anxiety-provoking. A pet often opens doors to conversation or community engagement, and makes meeting people or socializing easier. It is often a way into social interaction and can be a great conversation starter. It can change the scenario from sitting alone on a bench to sitting on a bench with a companion as many people walk by wearing kind smiles for you and your furry friend. Even attending outdoor public gatherings alone can be easier with a pet by your side.
  • Regular Exercise. Hands down, exercise is one of the most important aspects for mind and body health, agreed on by both conventional and holistic approaches to wellness. Taking your pet for a walk, hike, or even a run are great ways to exercise and stay fit. In fact, it’s been proven that dog owners are more likely to meet their daily exercise requirements than non-dog owners. Given that most walks are done in the outdoors, you can even get your daily recommended dose of Vitamin D from the sun, also great for depression and anxiety.

Depression and anxiety are less likely to occur in pet owners. Engaging in playful activity with them can even elevate serotonin and dopamine levels, which can calm and relax you.

Other Benefits of Having a Pet

Let’s face the facts. Choosing pharmaceuticals for your anxiety can have dangerous side effects like drowsiness, dizziness, restlessness, weight gain, nausea, and constipation. Moreover, they often don’t alleviate the problem, but just mask the symptoms to create an ongoing cycle of infliction. Using a more natural approach can help in lessening the load of additional toxins you place into your system. There are a tremendous number of health benefits that pets for anxiety provide:

Helping the elderly with pets for anxiety

  • Help For the Elderly. When elderly people are not feeling well, the touch and warmth of another being is very helpful. Many support pets are trained to lay their heads in a lap or gently get into bed and cuddle. Pets can offer vital companionship in times of need. In addition, the presence of a pet may spark special memories of family or time spent with dogs or cats.
  • Bringing Meaning to Life. With aging comes the natural process of losing things that once occupied your time. Children move out of the house, you may retire from work, and you may no longer be physically capable of doing yard work or mowing the lawn. Caring for a pet can help create a sense of self-worth, as well as increase morale and optimism. Often when a pet is rescued from a shelter, there is a sense of fulfillment knowing you saved the life of another being who may otherwise have been euthanized.
  • Immunity Building. Dogs encourage playfulness and laughter, which have been proven to boost immunity. A strong immune system can make a tremendous difference in a person’s life, particularly for aging or ill people.
  • Longevity. There is a definite link—reported by the American Heart Association—between the ownership of a pet and a reduced risk of certain heart diseases. One such case demonstrated that the blood pressure of those suffering from borderline hypertension declined significantly 5 months after adopting a pet. Pet owners have also been shown to have improved triglyceride and cholesterol levels. In general, dogs have been linked to a greater life span. In addition, heart attack patients that own a dog have shown better recovery and survival rates.
  • Weight Loss. Many studies have demonstrated a link between weight loss and dog ownership. Those who walked their dogs for up to 20 minutes 5 days a week lost an average of 14.4 lbs a year, without making any other changes.

Best Types of Pets for Anxiety

If you’ve decided to try pets for anxiety or emotional support, it's important to choose a pet that’s compatible with your household. It’s most beneficial to select a pet that best suits your needs. Dogs are among the most popular pets for anxiety and come in a wide variety of breeds and mixes, all with different personalities and traits.

There a few important things to consider when choosing a pet:

  • Is your household active? Does it have young children or disabled or elderly people?
  • How much shedding can you tolerate and how much grooming can you afford?
  • How much physical activity are you able to offer?
  • Should you choose a puppy or an adult rescue dog?
  • Does the size of your home match the size and temperament of the dog you want?

Although almost any breed is capable of becoming a support or companion dog, some breeds have preferable temperaments, such as golden retrievers, labradors, and german shepherds.

Dogs and Adrenal Fatigue

Adrenal fatigue and pets for anxietyMore than half the world suffers from stress-related conditions such as anxiety. How much damage can unmanaged stress cause to the body? A lot. The body’s NEM response system functions like a circuit breaker in that what happens to one system affects all the organs and the brain—the entire body. Therefore, stress responds best to a holistic treatment approach that addresses the entire body as a whole. Using pets for anxiety is one great method to assist with this type of therapy.

Conclusive research continues to show how support and companion animals are indeed effective at treating depression and anxiety, and promoting overall wellness. Stressed-induced ailments like Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome (AFS) affect the entire body. Taking full advantage of natural methods such as pets for anxiety can help ease symptoms.

Pets have been proven to do wonderful things for those suffering from AFS. However, caution should be taken. A main side effect of Adrenal Fatigue is body sensitivities. Sufferers often find themselves facing food intolerances and allergies they didn’t have before. The body becomes so out of balance that foreign objects, such as pet dander from dogs or service animals, may trigger an immediate internal reaction causing uncomfortable allergy-related symptoms. In addition, having a pet is a responsibility. The added stress of taking care of a dog or cat may be too much for those in advanced stages of Adrenal Fatigue. If you’re considering adopting pets for anxiety, it’s important to discuss this with your primary care physician or an adrenal specialist so you can choose the pet that’s right for you.

Maybe You’re Not A Dog Person

If you’re not a dog person, then a service or companion pet may be more stressful than good. They are expensive, require lots of time and attention, need frequent interaction, and can often be destructive or cause allergies. Pets are a major commitment that should not be overlooked. Owning a pet is only beneficial and healing if you love domestic animals and have the time and money to invest in them. But don’t worry, if you don’t have the time available to own a pet, there are still ways to receive the health benefits:

Dogs are not the only pets for anxiety

  • Volunteer at an animal shelter;
  • Walk the neighbor’s dog;
  • Look into pet rental programs;
  • Check out organizations that may bring trained dogs into your community for open sessions to relieve stress and anxiety;
  • Purchase a local zoo membership—interactions are always available and small zoos often allow you to pet horses and other docile animals;
  • Frequent horse farms to volunteer or simply take some horse riding lessons.

In conclusion, owning a dog is not a miracle cure. If you are suffering from severe anxiety or any other medical condition, it’s best to consult with health care provider immediately.

© Copyright 2019 Michael Lam, M.D. All Rights Reserved.


Dr. Lam's Key Question

Sufferers of AFS should always check with their healthcare provider first before using pets for anxiety. Pets are great stress reducers, however, many late stage sufferers may find they are allergy prone. In this case, finding a hypoallergenic dog may work!

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