Twitter recently called attention to emotional support animals brought to college campuses to help college students de-stress this month. The therapy dogs — and sometimes cats, llamas and chinchillas — are intended to help alleviate student anxiety. (Although specially trained and licensed, these pets go through a much less rigorous training process than therapy service dogs). Colleges generally contract these therapy animals from independent non-profits, and only a few times a semester. While Twitter’s “moment” about the animals was met with a lot of enthusiasm, it also saw some counter-tweeting from skeptics who see the practice as a PR move, something viscerally adorable but unproductive and unsustainable as a real response to rising mental health problems on college campuses.
I get the frustrated eye-rolling — no one-time or occasional activity is a replacement for accessible and reliable mental health services. But I also remember bringing my dog to nursing homes with my mom as a kid (we got our pup therapy-certified once we realized what an incredibly sweet, low-key girl we’d found at the ASPCA) and seeing real joy in the people who met her. Granted, they were also getting some human social contact, which has scientific backing as a positive, uplifting experience (loneliness is consistently highly correlated to a wide variety of mental health issues). But was the experience of interacting with a dog a significant part of their mood-boost? And if so, did that moment of joy have a significant, longer-term impact on their happiness and mental health?
It turns out, according to the science behind the human-animal relationship, there is a strong correlation between time spent around animals and improved mental health. What’s really interesting, though, is that the Twitter eye-rolling is rooted in science: it’s not just any contact with animals that has real impact on your happiness and mental health. It’s certain kinds of contact. So, without further ado: here’s the definitive guide to maximizing adorable animals for increased happiness and increased mental well-being!
Pet any (friendly) animal you see—it can help
The physical effect of stroking a warm, fuzzy animal can have a positive emotional impact. The sensation is a great trigger for the release of oxytocin in our brains, which makes us happier. This means that stroking a dog, cat, bunny, whatever, is actually helping your brain! So those exam-time therapy dogs aren’t all for show.
But extended contact is best
Many of the other benefits of a human-animal relationship are the product of regular, reliable contact. Pets have shown the ability to respond to their owners in uniquely intuitive ways — you know the cat-owner on your block who says her kittens know when she’s upset and comfort her? She might be right.
Talking to your pet boosts feelings of connectedness
We know that social contact with humans is good for mental health. It turns out that “social” contact with animals — actually talking to them — helps foster a sense of connectedness as well, and leads to improved mental health by giving you another way to share your emotions.
Sleep with your dog in the room — but don’t let him sleep in your bed
This Mayo Clinic-funded study explored the assertion that letting your dog sleep in your room negatively impacted sleep, and it found the opposite! Go ahead and keep your fur-baby close. But you may want to keep the animals off the bed, or limit the number of animals in your room to one: the disturbance of a dog jumping over you in the night, or chasing a cat out of the room, does have the potential to negatively impact your sleep, and thus your wellbeing.
Embrace the practical responsibilities of having a pet
It’s not just the cuddling (and talking) with animals that make us happy. The everyday tasks of caring for another being — be that walking a dog, brushing a cat, putting out food at a set time — help ground us and give us purpose that lies outside the fluctuations of work and social stimuli. Your dog always needs care, and it needs you to provide it.