Mental Health Benefits of Pets
We know that many people with breast cancer find that pets offer comfort and companionship and help them better cope with all the emotions that come with a cancer diagnosis and treatment. Steven Feldman joined us to talk about the mental health benefits pets can provide people with cancer, as well as things to think about if you’re considering adopting a pet.
Listen to the episode to hear Steve talk about:
the benefits of pets
how pets affect people both physiologically and psychologically
things to consider before adopting a pet
Steven Feldman is president of the Human-Animal Bond Research Institute. An experienced public affairs advocate, Steve has worked in wildlife conservation, animal welfare, healthcare, and education.
— Last updated on August 19, 2022, 6:23 PM
Jamie DePolo: Hello, thanks for listening. Our guest today is Steven Feldman, president of the Human-Animal Bond Research Institute. An experienced public affairs advocate, Steve has worked in wildlife conservation, animal welfare, healthcare, and education.
We know that many people with breast cancer find that pets offer comfort and companionship and help them better cope with all the emotions that come with a cancer diagnosis and treatment. Steve joins us today to talk about the mental health benefits pets can provide people with cancer, as well as things to think about if you're considering adopting a pet.
Steve, welcome to the podcast.
Steven Feldman: My pleasure to be here. Thank you for having me.
Jamie DePolo: So, before we sort of dive right into the topic, I have to ask you about your pets because I'm a huge pet fan. I have a lot myself. So, tell us about yours.
Steven Feldman: Well, let's see. I have a purebred mutt. He's 12 years old. So, he went from having an all-black face to now a speckled gray face. And then my daughter, during the pandemic, adopted a kitten, Winifred. Believe it or not, Winifred is now 2, and so I was always a dog person, and then I ended up falling in love with a cat also.
Jamie DePolo: And Scout and Winifred get along?
Steven Feldman: It took them a few months, but now they sleep together on the same mat, and they get along just fine.
Jamie DePolo: Oh, great. That's so good to hear. So, I know there was a really long list of the benefits that pets offer people, because I've been to the institute's website, and there's a lot of research going on. But could you give us some of the top things that you think pets offer people with cancer?
Steven Feldman: Sure. Well, I guess, the first thing I want to say, Human-Animal Bond Research Institute is kind of a little bit of a mouthful. You can just say HABRI. And our website is HABRI.org if people want to learn more.
We fund research on the human health benefits of having pets in our lives. And it turns out, especially when it comes to people who are undergoing trauma or who are suffering disease, can especially benefit from having pets. And there are both mental health and physical health benefits for having pets, and we've been able to document that through science.
Jamie DePolo: So, I mean, does it help with depression? Help with anxiety? I know some people, when they're undergoing cancer treatment, especially during this time of pandemic, people have felt really isolated. Now, can pets help with all those things? Is the research backing me up here? I'm just sort of assuming.
Steven Feldman: Yes. Absolutely. So, pets have been shown to reduce depression, to help alleviate stress and anxiety. And just kind of flipping the positive, people with pets report a more positive outlook on life.
Jamie DePolo: Oh, wow. Well, that's good to know. Now, is it any pet that can offer these benefits? I know most people think of cuddling something that's kind of fluffy and soft, but people have allergies. So, I'm wondering, can a fish, could a reptile, can any sort of creature offer these benefits?
Steven Feldman: I'm so glad you asked. Yes. A lot of the research focuses on dogs and cats, but in fact, any kind of pet, if it's the right pet for you, can provide these kinds of benefits. Birds and reptiles, in addition to fish, which you mentioned, might be good for people who have allergies. And I do find that there's a particular crowd that really does like their snakes and lizards, in particular. So, it really can be any kind of pet.
Jamie DePolo: Okay. Well, that's also good to know. Now, I kind of want to get a little bit into the science about it. Is it that the benefits come from having this companionship and sort of sense of purpose because it gets you outside yourself? You're caring for something else. Or is there really, like, a physiological aspect to it, as well, as opposed to just psychological?
Steven Feldman: Well, so, okay, let's talk about the scientific underpinning of why pets are good for us. One hypothesis is that we've actually co-evolved with pets. Everybody sees the hieroglyphics of cats in Ancient Egypt, and there are cave paintings that go back 30,000 years that first show man and dog together. And the idea is that we've evolved in tandem.
And this is one of the reasons why they don't look like wolves anymore, right? They're a lot smaller. They have bigger eyes, and they're evolved to be even, in fact, more like our children.
And so what has happened is this prompts a change in our brain chemistry. There are studies that show that when you're interacting with your pet, your oxytocin levels go up. Your endorphins go up. Your serotonin and dopamine increase. These are all the chemicals in your brain that are good for you. And your cortisol, which is your stress hormones, actually decrease.
And in some of the studies, we've even been able to show that these changes are happening in your dog or cat's brain. So, not only are you enjoying this interaction. It turns out, based on measuring the brain chemistry, they're enjoying the interaction as well.
Jamie DePolo: Oh, that's very interesting. So, it's kind of a symbiotic relationship.
Steven Feldman: Yes. When we talk about the human-animal bond, we always talk about it being a mutually beneficial relationship.
Jamie DePolo: Very interesting. I had no idea. I've also read specifically that besides, you know, mental health and that, people with pets have better heart health. Now, again, is that just because if you have a dog, you're probably walking the dog, so maybe you're getting more exercise than if you didn't have a dog? But people with cats don't usually walk their cats. So, I'm wondering how that happens.
Steven Feldman: So, dog walking, of course, seems like one obvious answer. However, one of my favorite studies, which was done at the University of Maryland, actually looked at people who had had a heart attack. And it looked at them one year after their cardiac event. And the people who had a cat were 40% more likely to be alive one year later than people who didn't have a pet at all.
So, even a cat in your lap can produce these beneficial changes. Pets have been shown to lower your blood pressure, and we already talked about lower stress. And then there's also that companionship, which you mentioned earlier, and that sense of purpose. Many people feel a great sense of purpose in caring for their animals, whether it's a dog, a cat, or something else.
Jamie DePolo: Okay. Now, are there any other benefits… we've talked about physical, psychological… I guess I'm wondering in the grand scheme of things, like, I've heard about children, especially children with autism, how pets can help them sort of integrate better into the world. Does that work for adults, too? Like, if somebody's really shy, can an animal help with that?
Steven Feldman: So, this is in particular with dogs who you tend to be out walking with, but it has been shown that neighborhoods that have more dogs, that have more pets, are closer knit. And you probably have talked a lot about your listeners having a good support system. Well, it turns out that when you go out, you meet your neighbors. A lot of my neighbors know me as Scout's dad, and neighbors become friends, and friends provide a support system for each other. So, in that way, not only do animals provide direct companionship, but they help you build your support network.
Jamie DePolo: Okay. That's very fascinating. Because I know if I see somebody out walking a dog, I'm immediately going to go over and ask if I can pet the dog and talk to the dog and find out more about the dog, which allows me to interact with the person, too.
Steven Feldman: That's right, and you mentioned the pandemic earlier. You know, loneliness was a problem, even before we had the pandemic, and it was just made worse. And loneliness — forget about pets for a second. Loneliness is associated with increased mortality. And so if you can alleviate loneliness, you can actually help people live longer. So, pets, again, in many ways, help us fight loneliness.
Jamie DePolo: Yes, I could definitely see that. That's very interesting. And mentioning the pandemic, I did read a couple news stories talking about how, because people were working from home, people were kind of locked in, there were a lot of animals adopted. And now people are starting to go back to work, and maybe they hadn't really thought it through about what this means for their life, now that they have a dog or a cat, I guess less so because they don't have to go out as much.
But if one of our listeners who's listening to this is thinking about, “Okay, this sounds like a good idea. I'm going to adopt a pet,” what are some things they should go through in their mind to figure out which kind of pet's right for them? You know, what kind of personality in the animal do they want?
I volunteer at our local shelter, and I see people come in who say, “I want a dog that I can take hiking and running,” and all this stuff. And then I ask about their lifestyle, and they're like, “Well, no, mostly I watch TV,” and I'm like, “Well, wait, there's kind of a disconnect here. I really don't think I want to hook you up with a border collie when maybe you need an older couch-potato kind of dog.”
So, could you talk a little bit about how people can go about figuring out what's right for them?
Steven Feldman: Well, I mean, so, you touched on lifestyle. That's really important, to make sure that the energy level and the activity level of the pet match your lifestyle.
Time is really important. Making sure that you have enough time to care for and interact with your pet. You know, we always say with the benefits of the human-animal bond, you have to put some time in. You have to spend time caring for the animal, playing with the animal, and that's how you get the maximum benefit, and it's also good for them. So, think about time.
We talked about time and lifestyle, and then money. It costs money to acquire a pet, to care for a pet. You have to think about veterinary care. So, make sure you go through your family budget, and make sure that you have the ability to responsibly care for that pet. There are a lot of good resources online about what it costs in general.
By the way, one of the things that happened during the pandemic, you said people were spending more time with their pets. So, there's a greater demand now for flexible workplaces or pet-friendly workplaces, because now that people are going back, they don't want to leave their pets behind.
Jamie DePolo: Interesting. Okay. I hadn't read that, but I could see that. I mean, that does make sense. The one thing I wanted to say, too, talking about budget — that's a very good point — is food. Sometimes I think people don't realize how much pet food can cost. There's a whole variety of things out there to choose from now, and a lot of times, people want to feed their animals the same way they eat, and that can be expensive.
Steven Feldman: Oh, yeah. Well, you know, there are a lot of good nutrition choices out there. You got to think that through. The other thing I do want to mention again is veterinary care. You want to make sure that your pet has all its immunizations, that it's well groomed. This is especially true if somebody's immunocompromised. You want to make sure that you have a healthy pet so that it can contribute to your health and not detract from your health.
Jamie DePolo: Oh, that's a good point, because that was one question I wanted to ask. I believe it's the American Cancer Society [that] has some information on their site about what you should consider — say, if you're getting chemotherapy, so you're immunocompromised. What to do with your pet? Like, keep your pet well groomed, as you said, but also, you may need to find somebody else, say, to change the cat box because there may be some bacteria or something in there that could harm you. Do you have any other pointers on that?
Steven Feldman: Well, you can safely interact with pets, and one of the things I did want to mention was therapy animals. Most hospitals and treatment facilities now actually have therapy animal programs. And so a therapy animal is an animal that's well trained, that's had all its immunization, that it only eats special food and is well groomed, and the handler brings those animals in, often to meet with patients in the hospital. Often kids. We actually helped fund a study on pediatric cancer patients and visits from therapy animals, and not only were the animals safe and beneficial for those patients, it also actually helped the families feel better, as well.
So, it wasn't just the patient. It was their entire family that's feeling better from the therapy animal. Kids who have to go in for chemotherapy treatments always say I look forward to going if there's a therapy animal there. So, a lot of these studies, even though they may have focused on kids, I think it's applicable for your audience to think about if you're going to a facility that has therapy animals, that can be beneficial. It also proves that you can do it safely if you do it right.
Jamie DePolo: Okay. Okay. That's good to know, because I know, too, sometimes certain reptiles, like turtles I think… We had turtles when I was a kid, and then somebody got sick, and they couldn't touch our turtles anymore. Just those are the kinds of things that people need to kind of keep in mind, especially somebody...like, I know many in our audience have metastatic breast cancer. So, they're going to be in treatment for the rest of their lives. And depending on what it is, they may be immunocompromised for the rest of their lives. So, maybe something like a turtle isn't the best pet for them. They would need to check those things out, right?
Steven Feldman: Yeah, some reptiles can transmit salmonella, and you just have to be super careful with your pet choice for that reason and also with your pet care.
Jamie DePolo: Okay. Okay. That's great. You mentioned therapy animals, and they're specially trained, and obviously, not everybody has the opportunity to interact with a therapy animal. I guess I'm curious, does a therapy animal offer any extra benefits, or is it just that that animal is trained and can go into very specific situations?
Steven Feldman: The handler and the animal are both well trained to go into those hospital settings or other healthcare settings. So, that means they can bring the benefits of the human-animal bond to people who might not be able to be at home with their pets. But many of those same benefits can be achieved by having your pet with you at home.
Jamie DePolo: Okay, and one last question. Maybe for somebody if, say, they live in an apartment and they're not allowed to have pets, are there any options for those people? I mean, do they just need to kind of befriend somebody who has a pet to get the benefits? I'm just wondering if there's anything they can do?
Steven Feldman: So, there's one other category that we could talk about then, which is an emotional support animal. And if your healthcare provider says that your pet, or getting a pet, would be beneficial for you to cope with stress, anxiety, depression, or help you with any other disability, and are willing to essentially write a letter saying that this animal provides you with emotional support, then housing providers that might not otherwise allow pets still have to allow you to have that emotional support animal.
Jamie DePolo: Oh, interesting. Okay, I know there was some pushback by the airlines on that, and I didn't know if housing was the same or if that's been resolved. Do you have any more insight on that?
Steven Feldman: Well, I'll just say that some people pushed it a little too far when it came to air travel, and some animals are not well suited for travel. But at home, any animal can be an emotional support animal, and that's something you should work through with a mental health practitioner or with your medical provider, and they can talk to you about that.
Jamie DePolo: Okay. Okay. That's great. Steve, thank you so much for joining us today. This has been really insightful, and I, of course, wish that everyone had a pet, but I know that's not possible. So, I hope maybe if people were questioning whether a pet would give them benefits, I hope what you've told them allows them to do so.
Steven Feldman: Well, I hope everybody can benefit from the love and companionship of a pet, especially if they're going through a tough time. Pets can be great for them. So, I hope people will think about it and learn more, and I'm just so pleased to be with you today. Thank you.