Pets & Plants: Important additions to your wellness support system

Have you heard of Caesar McCool, the “no drama llama”? This 350 pound therapy llama has the ability to provide a sense of calm for the brave protestors in tumultuous Portland, OR by being available for hugs and pets, The Washington Post reports. Caesar’s owner is quoted saying, “I don’t care how big, how staunch, how intense that somebody is — it could be a big marcher in total riot gear, and he will come up and give Caesar a big hug. It’s all I can do to just keep him from snuggling.”

My family always had dogs growing up. After being around them my entire life, it was not until I left home (and our family’s pet dog at the time) for college that I took note of the positive affects our pets had on my well-being. Out of curiosity, I took a biopsychology class called The Human-Animal Bond to learn more about the influence my family’s dogs had on me. What I learned was this: oxytocin, better known as “the love hormone”, is a chemical released in our brains when we bond socially. As its nickname indicates, oxytocin gives people the warm, fuzzy feelings that come with love and social connections. Oxytocin levels, which are proven to be high in people in new romantic relationships or new mothers, are also increased when people interact positively with dogs. While this includes petting and playing, what interested me the most was that simply making eye contact with a dog could improve a person’s mood and overall wellness.

With so many factors affecting different areas of our health recently, it is important to be knowledgeable of ways to expand your wellness support system. Below is some insight into how bringing a pet or plant into your life may improve your health. If you are already a pet or plant parent, you may learn something new about how the pets and plants in your life are taking care of your wellness.

For the pet person
It’s no secret that animals can have positive effects on people’s wellness. Popular books-turned-movies such as A Dog’s Purpose, Marley & Me and The Art of Racing in the Rain show us personal accounts of the ways pets can impact or influence a person’s life experiences. If you are able to endure the tears to get to the end of these stories, it is always evident that the characters are left profoundly changed by their pet. Those who have been blessed by the experience of being bonded to a pet know that, while dramatized for the big screen, animals really do have the ability to influence us in these ways.

As humans, the responsibility of caring for living things can bring us joy and have the power to improve mental health by giving us a sense of purpose and fulfillment. Pets provide us with companionship and can lead to decreased feelings of loneliness. Having a pet can also lead to more opportunities for socialization with other people as it gives you something in common with others who have the same type of pet.

The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) report physical health benefits to having pets, including lower cholesterol and decreased blood pressure. Many pets also encourage you to be physically active through playtime, walks or runs. Pets requiring time outdoors also gives you consistent time getting fresh air.

Pets, particularly dogs, are also proven to lower symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress. In recent years,  we have seen emotional support animals (ESAs) become increasingly popular for mental health treatment. The government defines an ESA as an animal (not a pet) that provides comfort to help relieve a symptom or effect of a person’s disability (The ESA Registration of America). Having a registered ESA in the United States allows people with diagnosed mental health conditions some exemptions to requirements associated with travel and housing. 

For the in-home gardener
While our furry friends are great, it turns out they are not the only living things we can add to our homes to help improve our well-being. Since the onset of self-quarantining earlier this year, we have seen a rise in the number of self-proclaimed “plant parents” as many have taken on the responsibility of houseplants and indoor herbs.

There is much research that shows the benefits of residing in environments with greenery. For example, a 2010 study by the Norwegian University of Life Sciences and Sweden’s Uppsala University showed that a group of medical patients undergoing treatment in environments filled with healthy plants showed objective improvements in respiration, blood pressure and heart rate, as well as a higher number of self-reports of reduced stress and feelings of happiness, compared to a group of patients undergoing the same medical treatment in environments with no healthy or lush plants (published in HortScience Journal by The American Society of Horticultural Science).

Just like with pets, caring for a plant can help immensely with anxiety, depression and general stress. Plants in our home also have benefits to our physical health, as they can clean the air in your space by removing harmful toxins. Those who choose to grow indoor herbs or vegetables can improve eating habits by having these healthy food options more readily available. With so many different types of indoor greenery requiring different levels of care, it is likely that anyone can find a plant that is a good match for the level of responsibility they are willing and able to give.

Whether you are in and out of your work space, or are working from home, having a plant or two around during our work day may also has its benefits. In 2017, Forbes reported results from an Exeter University study that found people are 15% more productive when there is greenery in their work space. The same article reports a Harvard study that found people working in green-certified offices experienced other health benefits, including improved cognition, better sleep quality and as many as 30% fewer illness-related absences.

There are many online resources to learn more about choosing the right indoor greenery for your lifestyle and how to care for it properly. As long as it is safe to do so in your area and you are wearing the proper face mask protection, you can also visit a local garden center to learn more about what indoor plant options they have available.

If you are interested in news updates, stories or more resources about animals and plants, check out OneGreenPlanet.org, an online hub for information about making healthy and conscientious choices for yourself and the environment.

Kim Richard, EK


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