AVMA partners with psychiatric professionals to promote human-animal bond

American Psychiatric Association releases survey, book during monthlong social media campaign

As the nation continues to contend with the adverse mental health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, the AVMA and the American Psychiatric Association are joining forces in March to call attention to the mental health benefits of having an animal companion.

The two organizations are promoting an effort called #Paws4MentalHealth that encourages pet owners to take a break, get up, stretch, and share a picture of their pet with an explanation of how their pet positively impacts their mental health.

“Veterinarians know first-hand the tremendously good impact pets can have on our lives and on our mental well-being,” said Dr. Lori Teller, AVMA president, in a March 1 announcement about the campaign. “We are so pleased to partner with APA on this unique opportunity to spread this positive message and to encourage everyone to take a #Paws4MentalHealth.”

Young couple playing with their cat
Among respondents to a recent poll by the American Psychiatric Association, cat owners were more likely than dog owners to say their pets offer companionship, provide a calming presence, and help reduce stress and anxiety. Dog owners were twice as likely as cat owners to say their pet encourages them to be physically active.

A social media toolkit to help spread the word is available, with sample posts and frames for Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, and Facebook. At 1 p.m. ET on March 29, the AVMA and APA will host a Twitter chat about pets and mental health featuring leaders from both organizations under the hashtag #Paws4MentalHealth.

Survey results

In conjunction with the campaign, the APA has released results from a new national poll about mental health and pets.

The findings of the February edition of the APA’s Healthy Minds Monthly Poll reinforce that in addition to pets being important members of the household, pet owners believe that pets offer mental health benefits. The poll was fielded by Morning Consult from February 10-12, with a sample of 2,200 adults.

Among pet owners, 86% said their pets have a mostly positive impact on their mental health. Dog owners (87%) and cat owners (86%) were equally likely to say so.

When asked about various stressors related to pets, pet owners were most worried about their pets aging or passing away (71%) and their pets’ health conditions (66%). Over half also worried about arrangements while traveling (56%) and health care–related expenses (58%).

Survey respondents who did not own pets said they were most likely not to own one because they couldn’t afford it (29%) or they did not have time to take care of a pet (22%). About 11% were mourning a deceased pet.

“People recognize that there is something special about bonds between humans and their pets,” said Rebecca Brendel, MD, APA president, in a March 1 release about the results. “The animals we bring into our lives and our families play many roles from non-judgmental companions that we love to key partners in reducing our stress and anxiety. Americans clearly recognize that our relationships with our pets can have noticeable benefits for our overall mental health.”

Animal-assisted therapy

Companion animals can also play an important role through animal-assisted therapy or animal-assisted interventions in the treatment of mental illness and development disorders and in the promotion of mental health.

The APA’s newly released book for mental health practitioners, “The Role of Companion Animals in the Treatment of Mental Disorders,” examines the existing evidence to support animal-based interventions as well as the risks associated with various types of programs.

The book provides a thorough analysis of the latest research and explores topics that include protecting the animal’s health and welfare, with an emphasis on understanding applicable laws and regulations.

People who are considering getting a service dog not only should consult their licensed mental health professional but also talk to a veterinarian before starting the process. The AVMA policy “The Veterinarian’s Role in Supporting Appropriate Selection and Use of Service, Assistance, and Therapy Animals” states that “veterinarians have a role in assisting their clients in selecting the right animal for the right task, recommending that the animal receives appropriate training for its intended role, and ensuring that the health and welfare of that animal are addressed.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 1 in 25 Americans lives with a serious mental illness, and the National Institute of Mental Health stated that in 2020, 1 in 5 adults in the United States had a mental illness.

“It is wonderful to be able to build this partnership between physicians and veterinarians as we call attention to mental health,” said Saul Levin, MD, APA CEO and medical director, in the March 1 announcement about #Paws4MentalHealth. “Pets are part of our lives and families. The way we collectively feel about pets can create excitement and build connections, so I’m very pleased we are launching this campaign.”

The AVMA has adopted a range of policies that relate to the human-animal bond. The Association also is a founding educational partner for the Human-Animal Bond Certification Program for veterinary professionals offered through the Human Animal Bond Research Institute and the North American Veterinary Community.