New research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) by the Universities of Ulm and Colorado Boulder analyses the relationship between owning pets and rural upbringings, and mental health.
To collect evidence, 40 healthy men were selected, of which half had grown up on a farm and half in a heavily urbanised pet-free environment. The participants were instructed to deliver a public speech and solve a timed maths problem, with blood and saliva samples being taken systematically throughout the process.[pullquote]Children raised in a rural animal-rich environment have more stress-resilient immune systems and resultantly face a lower risk of mental health problems[/pullquote]
Analysis of the samples shows that those who grew up in cities had noticeably prolonged elevation of interleukin 6 (an inflammatory compound) and muted activation of interleukin 10 (an anti-inflammatory compound). Research demonstrates a strong correlation between these exaggerated inflammatory responses and the development of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
These differences are explained by immunoregulatory stress responses being significantly influenced by the microbial environment someone grows up in. The PNAS report concludes that children raised in a rural animal-rich environment have more stress-resilient immune systems and resultantly face a lower risk of mental health problems.
This evidence is supported by other studies illustrating the mental wellbeing benefits of pets. For those with depression, taking dogs on daily walks promotes regular exercise and provides socialising opportunities with other owners, decreasing the risk of social isolation. Keeping pets also provides a sense of purpose and achievement, acting as a source of motivation because the owners are needed and appreciated by their pets.
Pets additionally provide a sense of security and company to older owners, with research showing that regular contact with dogs reduces outbursts of anxiety among Alzheimer’s sufferers. Pets are also beneficial for children with autism who are often calmed by spending time with animals and resultantly are more able and indeed willing to develop social relationships with others.
An analysis of 17 academic studies by the Universities of Manchester, Liverpool and Southampton shows that sufferers of depression, stress, loneliness and post-traumatic stress disorder can derive considerable benefits from keeping pets. This is because pets not only distract their owners from their illness, but they also provide simple and conflict-free relationships, which is important for people with severe mental illness.[pullquote]These findings further evidence the “hygiene hypothesis”, which draws on the correlation between sterile environments and health problems[/pullquote]
Arguments to get a pet are more compelling still when the physical health benefits of pet ownership are drawn into consideration. As a result of increasing rural-urban migration in developing countries more than half of the global population now lives in urban areas, leaving humans decreasingly exposed to microorganisms. This lack of exposure triggers the development of chronic low-grade inflammation and exaggerated immune reactivity, which increases vulnerability to allergies, asthma, autoimmune diseases, and ultimately psychiatric disorders. Being raised in a rural environment with animals and the associated bacterial diversity thus helps reduce the risk of developing these.
These findings further evidence the “hygiene hypothesis”, which draws on the correlation between sterile environments and health problems.
The PNAS findings ultimately prove the benefits of microbial exposure through pet ownership and rural upbringings on both physical and mental health. The only question left unresolved, however, is whether we should now splash out our student loans on a cat, dog, budgie, hamster, or something a little more exotic…