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Why does the mental health of animals matter?

Knowing how your pet senses and experiences the world and considering how this influences their behavioural responses will ensure a pet of any species remains stress free, and is both physically and mentally healthy

26 May 2021, at 9:00am

Animal behaviour tells us about the actions of the animals that we have around us – how they respond to their environment and the other individuals (both human and non-human animal) around them. From this study of a pet’s behaviour, assessment of the physical and social environment, and of the human–animal interactions that form part of a pet’s daily life, can be gained. Improvements can be made where possible and alterations to care schedules, use of toys and enrichment, feeding times or human interactions should be made based on the behavioural responses of the animal. As well as these mechanical actions (eg playing, vocalising, moving, sleeping, resting, feeding), we also need to consider the animal’s behavioural expression – the way in which it expresses emotions or internal psychological states. These behavioural expressions can give us an understanding of how the animal thinks about the environment that it is in and how this environment influences its moods and feelings (Figure 1).

Figure (1) The interaction between inputs (ie the resources provided to the pet or companion animal) and the outputs (behaviour patterns and expressions of emotion or mood) that illustrate mental health status
Figure (1) The interaction between inputs (ie the resources provided to the pet or companion animal) and the outputs (behaviour patterns and expressions of emotion or mood) that illustrate mental health status

It’s helpful to think of mental health as part of the result that comes from what the animal is provided with (its inputs) and how it responds to these inputs. The individual animal’s overall welfare state is a mixture of its behavioural normality (the time it spends performing behaviours that are important to it and that are species-specific or species-relevant) and the emotions behind these actions (for example how agitated or anxious it appears, or how confident or outgoing the individual is). These descriptions of behavioural expression will vary based on how the animal’s behaviour is responding to the inputs at that particular time. Owners will know their pet’s inner feelings and emotions because they are around the animal all of the time and get to understand its moods and expressions: what the normal “personality” is for that particular individual. Such information is really helpful to the veterinary surgeon when faced with a potential health or well-being issue that may be affecting a pet’s mental health. Behavioural expression sounds complicated but it actually encompasses a range of expressions and emotions that owners are likely to be familiar with: a dog wagging its tail, a cat purring, a budgie pair chuntering and chirping to each other – signs that a pet wants to come and interact with an owner. Behavioural expression is the meaning behind the purring or the wagging of the tail or the chuntering between birds. Should your dog stop greeting you with a tail wag, or your cat look uninterested or bored when normally he or she would like a cuddle, or one of the budgies become quiet and withdrawn, these changes to behavioural expression can be investigated further for the causative factor.

If my pet’s mental health is good, my mental health is likely to be better

Numerous publications describe how human mental health is improved by contact with animals and by the bonds that can form between humans and animals they are in close contact with (Beetz et al., 2012; Cusack, 2014; Hill et al., 2020; Nagendrappa et al., 2020). Taking care of a pet provides a sense of fulfilment and a sense of attachment and companionship, which can boost self-esteem and self-worth and reduce feelings of anxiety and depression. Well-cared-for pets that are in good health and are engaged with their owner and environment provide a range of positive emotional benefits. Caring for a pet as part of a daily routine provides elements of structure and purpose to an individual’s day. Playing or other direct engagement with a pet (eg physical contact) or talking to a pet reduces physiological and psychological stress responses. Contact with both mammalian and non-mammalian species has been shown to improve mood and reduce heart rate and blood pressure, demonstrating how humans engage positively with pet animals around them (DeSchriver and Riddick, 1990; Grajfoner et al., 2017; Henry and Crowley, 2015; Jones et al., 2021).

Providing information to owners on how to care for their pet properly, to keep it healthy and to ensure its mental well-being is good, will keep these positive effects on mood that are beneficial to the owner’s quality of life.

How to improve a pet’s mental health and keep it at a good standard

Mental health in pets and companion animals can be improved by knowledge of species’ biology and adapting husbandry and care regimes accordingly (Figure 2). This is fundamental for all species cared for in a domestic setting, from dogs to goldfish.

Figure (2) Taking evidence from the animal’s wild ecology (of its ancestors or free-living populations) and the mismatch (red arrows) and biologically relevant (green arrows) aspects of care, and adapting husbandry and care regimes accordingly, it is possible to improve the mental health of pets and companion animals. For parrots, travelling over large distances and foraging using a diverse array of actions is not replicated by seed in a bowl but can be replicated with a feeding device that requires manipulation. For rabbits, a grazing species, physical and mental well-being is promoted by giving pet rabbits ad lib access to hay and restricted access to concentrate pellets. For goldfish, whose ancestors come from planted lakes and rivers, an artificial, unfiltered bowl reduces longevity and limits behavioural diversity, both of which are enhanced in a planted tank with a social and physically variable environment.
Figure (2) Taking evidence from the animal’s wild ecology (of its ancestors or free-living populations) and the mismatch (red arrows) and biologically relevant (green arrows) aspects of care, and adapting husbandry and care regimes accordingly, it is possible to improve the mental health of pets and companion animals. For parrots, travelling over large distances and foraging using a diverse array of actions is not replicated by seed in a bowl but can be replicated with a feeding device that requires manipulation. For rabbits, a grazing species, physical and mental well-being is promoted by giving pet rabbits ad lib access to hay and restricted access to concentrate pellets. For goldfish, whose ancestors come from planted lakes and rivers, an artificial, unfiltered bowl reduces longevity and limits behavioural diversity, both of which are enhanced in a planted tank with a social and physically variable environment.

Understanding the human influence on a pet’s mental health is also essential. Consider how actions, words, verbal commands and your mood and frame of mind will influence a pet’s demeanour, personality or behaviour pattern. Species with a long history of co-evolution with humans – for example the dog, being domesticated around 15,000 years ago and claimed as the world’s oldest domesticated species (Lahtinen, 2021) – are likely to have a heightened sense for understanding meaning behind an owner’s or caregiver’s body language. But even species with a more recent “domesticated” relationship with human caregivers, such as many species of parrots, will respond in a specific way (and display changes to personality or behavioural expression) according to an owner’s mood or demeanour (Anderson, 2003).

Practical ways of enhancing a positive healthy state of mind in a pet or companion animal include the use of enrichment to promote the performance of behaviours that bring about positive feelings or emotions (for example by making a parrot work for its food, providing a rabbit with grazing or a cat with a scratching and marking post). Enrichment provides beneficial challenge to an individual animal or motivates it to diversify its activity pattern, both of which provide a sense of autonomy and sense of control over its environment. This allows the animal to experience a more positive psychological well-being. Information on anatomy and physiology is also important to how we promote good mental health in our pets and companion animals. Knowing how your pet senses and experiences the world, moving around them in a specific way, talking and telling them about your actions and intentions, considering whether they would be predator or prey (and hence how this influences their behavioural responses) will ensure a pet of any species remains stress free, and is both physically and mentally healthy.