Pets that Reduce Anxiety in Children & Adults
Rabbits, guinea pigs, fish, horses, and even crickets have something powerful in common. Along with traditional pets such as dogs and cats, all have been shown to help reduce anxiety and stress. A variety of animals can become “man’s best friend,” providing comfort and affection to children and adults, and the process of caring for and loving an animal promotes healing benefits. Hospitals and classrooms are also beginning to encourage the inclusion of pets because of their ability to help children focus.
Prestigious universities have set up institutes to study this phenomenon, such as the Tufts Institute for Human-Animal Interaction and the Center for the Human-Animal Bond at Purdue University. While having pets in a hospital setting used to be considered unsanitary, many children’s hospitals—such as Texas Children’s Hospital and Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital—are now including animal-assisted therapy to benefit their patients. This is encouraging news to any parents thinking of getting a family pet to benefit their child and reduce their anxiety.
Pet Therapy: Understanding the Health Benefits of Pets for Anxiety
Although we don’t need science to tell us how a cuddly puppy can cheer up a family member, research on “pet therapy” confirms what many of us have known all along. In fact, even people who say they don’t like animals feel a reduction in anxiety when petting one. And studies show children who read to their dogs have less anxiety and better reading skills, especially in those who have poor self-confidence.1 Even more, cuddling with a dog has been shown to release the bonding hormone oxytocin, and lower the stress hormone cortisol, leading to reduced anxiety and increased calmness.2 It can also lower blood pressure, which makes you feel more relaxed.3
Another way pets help reduce anxiety is by promoting healthier relationships. A study by Harvard showed that pets help to create human-to-human friendships and social support, both of which are beneficial for long-term health.4 And a survey by the Human-Animal Bond Research Institute found that 80 percent of pet owners said their pets made them feel less lonely.5 For children with social anxiety, which often exacerbates loneliness, pets have been shown to stimulate conversation, serving as an icebreaker that can alleviate social anxiety via a social catalyst effect.6
What is an ESA and Should You Get One?
ESA stands for “emotional support animal,” which is just what it sounds like: an animal that provides emotional and therapeutic support to a person with mental health issues or a psychiatric disability. It can be a dog, cat, or any other domesticated animal. Though ESAs do not need to undergo any special training, a person needs a “prescription” for this kind of animal from a mental health professional. ESAs are also covered under the Fair Housing Act, which means people can have them even if they live in a place that does not typically allow people to have a pet in their home. Small animals can even travel with you free of charge, but unlike specially trained service animals, ESAs are not usually allowed into other public places that don’t allow pets, such as restaurants and shopping centers.
If you think you or your child can benefit from having an ESA, you should schedule a call with your doctor or a mental health professional. They will be able to determine if an ESA is best for your needs and walk you through the necessary steps in getting one. Any family pet can be designated as an ESA, but only when cleared by your doctor.
Before you get an ESA, it’s helpful to know that having an animal can involve a lot of work and responsibility. For some, this responsibility can be motivating and even get you to exercise (like taking a dog for a walk) which has its own mental health benefits. But for others, this kind of responsibility can also increase stress if you have trouble caring for the pet or do not have enough room to accommodate a pet. Take some time to jot down what life with an ESA would be like, including the extra costs of having a pet, how having one would impact your schedule, and more realities to ensure that you are ready to take this step.
Pets and Mental Health
According to a poll by the American Psychiatric Association, 86 percent of surveyed Americans say their pets have a mostly positive impact on their mental health.7 And 88 percent said they consider their pets members of their family. In addition to helping reduce stress and anxiety, pets boost mental health by providing unconditional love and support, offering companionship, and providing a calming presence.
Other studies have shown that pet owners are less likely to suffer from depression than those without pets.8 This may have something to do with the fact that playing with a dog, cat, or other pet helps to elevate levels of the feel-good neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine, which are crucial to mood regulation.9
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Low-Maintenance Pets: Best Pets to Help Reduce Anxiety for Kids & Adults
While most animals provide comfort and a strong sense of responsibility, there are some that are especially great at reducing anxiety in human beings. While the following pets are considered low-maintenance, you should always take into account your own space and schedule. Some pets are more attentive than others, yet may require more care. Other pets can mostly be left alone but may not be as affectionate. Here are some low-maintenance pet to consider:
Dogs and Cats
The most common pets for reducing anxiety are dogs and cats.10 As social creatures both dogs and cats are known to build bonds with their owners and show affection, which can be comforting at the end of a difficult day. Of course, some breeds will be more affectionate than others. Some of the friendliest dogs are golden retrievers, labradors, pugs, and beagles. Some of the friendliest cats are persian and ragdoll breeds.
Guinea Pigs and Hamsters
If you or your family members don’t have room for a dog or a cat, consider a pet that can live in a small cage such as a guinea pig or a hamster. You can still pet either one to experience the proven benefits of petting to reduce stress, and they are not difficult to care for. Just keep in mind that these small animals have short life spans, so you should prepare yourself and your child for that reality when the time comes.
A bird can also make for a great pet and add its song to your home. Studies have found that exposure to bird songs actually helped to reduce anxious and paranoid states in otherwise healthy subjects because they are associated with nature sounds.11
Quiet and typically gentle, small turtles can also make great pets. However, they do require complex housing and feeding requirements that should be taken into account. They are also not known as cuddlers, but they do show affection by watching their owners and being present with them.
Crickets may seem like an unusual pet option, but don’t be so quick to pass them up. They take up very little space, they’re easy to care for, and they don’t bite. You can even pet them if your hands are fast enough. And like birds, they emit their own kind of “song,” which can be relaxing for the same reasons–reminding us of nature. However, crickets are nocturnal, so if you feel their chirping will keep you up at night, you may want to steer clear of this pet.
Rabbits make good housemates as well, and some can even be toilet trained. These animals are gentle, clean, quiet, and many of them like to be petted and sit on your lap for periods of time. However, like dogs, rabbits are not exactly low maintenance pets and can live up to 14 years if not longer. If you’re considering a rabbit as a pet, please note that it’s a big commitment.
When you think of a cuddly animal, you may not think of a bearded dragon. But these reptiles are quite social, and when they feel safe, they are happy to be handled by their owners to provide emotional support. They are actually very low maintenance, without needing to be taken for walks or groomed frequently. However, keep in mind that bearded dragons require special living conditions, which includes a heated lamp.
Despite their prickly appearance, hedgehogs can help reduce anxiety and provide emotional support like pros. These intelligent creatures are known to be very responsive to their owners, and in some cases, even mimic their owner’s emotions. Please note while any animal can be designated an emotional support animal, some planes and other public areas do not recognize hedgehogs as support animals.12 Always check ahead if you plan to travel with your pet.
Miniature Horses or Donkeys
Choosing a miniature horse or donkey as a pet isn’t a common low-maintenance choice, but it can be if you live near a stable or live on a big block of land with a pasture where the animal can roam freely (at least a quarter of an acre). If you have the space and ability to care for this type of animal, they can provide a wealth of emotional support. In fact, some airports have housed miniature horses to help nervous flyers before take-off.13 Compared to larger horses and donkeys, these miniature versions are easier to care for and not usually aggressive. They can even be calmer than more sociable creatures, like dogs.
Lifestyle Factors to Consider When Getting a Pet
Before you search for a family pet, take into account time and how it will impact everyone in the family. Some things to consider are who will take care of the pet, and if adding a pet will help a child learn to be responsible (or increase anxiety through additional tasks). Consider the needs of the pet. For example, how often will the pet need to be walked or brushed? And will these chores mesh with your family’s schedules? Also, make sure your child is old enough to understand the responsibilities of having a pet. Many kids show extreme interest and enthusiasm at the idea of having a pet, but when it comes down to the actual responsibilities entailed, they can find pet ownership to be too daunting. Gently introduce them to the chores involved beforehand so they’re not too overwhelmed when the animal arrives.
How to Find Your Ideal Animal
Visiting pet stores is a good way to become acquainted with the types of pets available in your area and to see which ones your family gravitates toward. For dogs and cats, find out if it’s possible to visit the breeder and be sure to inquire about the health and habits of the animal’s parents (and even view them, if possible). Adopting cats and dogs from shelters is another great way to find a wonderful family pet. Whatever pet you decide to get, investigate that animal’s needs as well as your family’s so you can be sure you’ve found a good match.
Additional Anxiety Remedies & When to Seek Professional Help
Interacting with a pet is just one way to help ease anxiety in children and adults. But it’s not the only way. Talking to a therapist or counselor can help uncover the root cause of your anxiety or your child’s anxiety. Practicing relaxation techniques like meditation, yoga, or mindful breathing can also help control the physiological and emotional symptoms of anxiety.
If you are struggling with anxiety on a regular basis and need more support, consider taking a non-prescription medication like Brillia. Safe for children and teens five and older, as well as adults, Brillia is a homeopathic anxiety medication designed to reduce symptoms of anxiety, irritability, and restlessness without the use of harsh, synthetic chemicals or harmful side effects. Brillia’s active ingredient consists of antibodies to the S100B protein, which plays a role in a wide variety of intracellular and extracellular brain processes. Studies indicate that anxiety can stem from an imbalance of the S100B protein and Brillia’s active ingredient helps to restore balance without causing drowsiness, affecting the appetite, masking the personality, or impacting any other systems in the body. Even more, this normalizing effect also stabilizes other monoamines, including serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine, common targets in anti-anxiety medication. As part of a holistic approach, Brillia works best in tandem with healthy lifestyle choices outlined in our 5- Pillar methodology. This includes following a healthy diet, getting adequate sleep, controlling screen time, and practicing mindfulness techniques.
While a pet can provide comfort and support to your or your child, be sure to explore other skills you can count on for anxiety relief when your pet is not nearby.