On this World Mental Health Day – and in recognition of the European Care Strategy, which aims to ensure quality, affordable and accessible care services for all1 – we at Zoetis would like to shed some light on the important role that pets can play in the lives, health, and wellbeing of families in Europe. By offering companionship, comfort, and motivation to get moving, animals can have a hugely positive impact on our mental wellbeing.
Jamie Brannan is the President of Internationa Operations at Zoetis.
Accelerated by the combined impacts of COVID-19, a challenging economic outlook and environmental crisis, the topic of mental health is more prevalent than ever in the political discourse. In last month’s 2022 State of the Union Address, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced a new comprehensive approach to mental health that will be presented in full next year which will aim to improve understanding of mental health issues and how they are addressed.
Complimenting existing EU strategies and the UN Decade of Healthy Ageing, which emphasize the need for increased mental health and wellbeing support, this new initiative presents an opportunity to change our approach to ensure better care for all.
Mental health is complex and healthcare systems are becoming more open to therapeutic tools that don’t include traditional medication. For example, psychiatrists in Belgium are now able to prescribe art and museum visits to people suffering from mental health issues.2 Could they prescribe interaction with companion animals next?
Pets and companion animals have been present in all cultures of the world since ancient times and the power of the human-animal bond is remarkable. Not only does having pets in the home nurture cognitive, emotional, social, and physical development, human-animal interactions are also proven to reduce anxiety, depression, and loneliness as they enhance social support and general wellbeing.3,4
Personally, my dog Rocco has always been a key family member, but he was a saving grace during the lockdowns over the last years of the pandemic. During days filled with Zoom meetings, my family and I gained a new sense of appreciation for him as he got us out for walks that helped us get more exercise and created a special time to connect together in the fresh air.
To investigate the positive impact that pets can have on people, in 2010 Zoetis co-founded the Human Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI), which has gathered, funded, and shared scientific evidence of the positive health impacts of companion animals. The Institute has created the world’s largest research library for the study of the human-animal bond and is funding an increasing number of groundbreaking research projects that will ultimately help millions of people benefit from the healing power of pets.
One of those recent projects has been a survey of 18,145 dog and cat owners and 1,357 small animal veterinarians from nine countries, including Brazil, China, France, Germany, Japan, Mexico, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Virtually all pet owners around the world (98%) reported at least one benefit to their health from their pets including increased happiness, reduced loneliness, and decreased stress, and 88% of pet owners say they’ve experienced mental health and/or physical health benefits of the human-animal bond.5
However, even with a growing body of data in support of human-animal interactions to foster wellbeing, there is currently no EU policy or legislative initiative dedicated to advancing its use in healthcare.
Quite the contrary, diverse barriers to pet ownership exist, and the full potential of the mutually beneficial human-animal health relationship is not realized. For example, these barriers include lack of access to public spaces such as restaurants, pet travel restrictions, and insurance and licensing issues.
To remove these obstacles, we would like to encourage policymakers to explore the following ideas and policy recommendations:
- Develop EU-wide actions to raise awareness on the mutually reinforcing human-animal bond on health, e.g., role of companion animals in social care;
- Support pet-owner friendly environments that are proven to benefit society’s mental wellbeing;
- Roll out initiatives to raise awareness and provide guidance on the healthy ageing of pets among pet owners of all generations; and
- Facilitate access to and affordability of the whole care pathway for pets, from preventive approaches to treatment.
At Zoetis, we are committed to supporting the path to pet ownership so that more people can enjoy the myriad benefits of adding an animal to their family. Among others, our full portfolio of products for prevention and treatment of diseases expands the veterinary care access to underserved populations and communities in need, and we invest in the human-animal bond via charitable programs that reach tens of thousands of people a year.
We relish the opportunity to discuss with policymakers and other stakeholders on ways to further strengthen the wellbeing relationship between people and their pets.