Over recent weeks we have been highlighting the importance of good companion animal mental health. Here are some ways we can all support our animals and enrich their lives.
Understand and provide for their needs
Firstly, we should learn about the psychological needs of the species and breeds who might live with us (here are some basics on cats, dogs, and rabbits). We should carefully consider whether we can provide for those needs before choosing to bring an animal home. But it doesn’t end there. Once we get our animals home the real learning starts. We should learn to read them and let them tell us what they need. Just like humans, they are all individuals, and saying “dogs like x” is as unlikely to apply to all of them as saying “people like x.”
However, it will be easier to get to know an individual if you have a good understanding of the species’ behaviour and body language (here are some basics on rabbits, cats and dogs). This should include concerted effort in learning from experts and spending time observing animals. But it should also include tuning in to your animal. Other animals are very sensitive to human energy and emotions, we should try to offer them the same in return (while being careful to truly do so, not project ourselves onto them.)
Education, especially early in life
You may have heard of the ‘pandemic puppy boom’, and the various repercussions of that to animal wellbeing. Lack of socialisation is one of the most prominent of these. This is sometimes discussed in terms of the effects it will have on humans: animals will be more difficult to handle or behave in unwanted ways. But what about the experience of the animals? Think of the level of physical, mental, and emotional stimulation, education, and support young children are given to learn the skills they need to operate and feel secure within the world. Animals need and deserve the same. They need to learn the language and etiquette of not only their own species but humans too.
Additionally, basic training can teach our animals how we want them to behave in our world; this should always be balanced with acknowledging and allowing some of things that they want to do. Training is especially important for dogs, because we take them with us into the world more, but training is valuable for other animals too. Training should always be reward based and compassionate.
Without good socialisation and training, animals can develop anxiety and phobias. There are ways to help them overcome this, such as desensitisation and counter-conditioning. It is very important to get such training right, so if you are unsure it is better to find an expert to help you. Qualified animal behaviourists can also help with other worrying or unwanted behaviours, or with getting training right from the beginning, if you are new to it.
Enrichment can be described as anything that is added to an animal’s life or environment that improves their mental, emotional, or physical health. This is usually by giving opportunities for activities they are strongly motivated to do but might otherwise be deprived of in a human world. In human terms, think of a life where your basic needs for food, water and shelter are met; and how that life would be improved by the opportunity to, for example, go hiking or gardening or spend time with friends.
Give some choice and control
Giving our animals some choice and control over their lives can significantly improve their mental health. This can include providing lots of different hiding places and vantage points for cats, allowing dogs to choose the route on walks (within reason) or sniff as long as they like, or making sure any animal has the choice of when they want to interact with people. Humans or other animals having control over their lives is sometimes referred to as agency or autonomy, and it can profoundly affect wellbeing.
Introducing co-operative care can hugely improve the lives of animals who find vet visits or necessary health procedures, such as nail trimming, stressful. This involves a training procedure that not only allows the animal to avoid fear of such procedures, but gives them a ‘consent’ signal, so that it is only carried out when they communicate that they are comfortable. Having this control over potentially uncomfortable procedures allows the animal to feel much more secure. This video shows nail trimming with consent.
Help us improve companion animal mental health
By donating towards our summer appeal, you will help to:
- Enable people to understand their animals; both as a species and individuals, to better provide for them.
- Encourage more people to think carefully about whether they can provide for the physical and emotional needs of an animal before offering them a home.
- Raise awareness of mental health needs in animals, and recognition that ‘behaviour problems’ are often signs that the animal is struggling.
You can donate to our appeal here and help us protect cats, dogs, rabbits and other animals from suffering.
These are just a few insights into how we can support and help improve our animals’ mental health. It is something that will evolve as we gain deeper understanding, collectively and individually. We would love to hear your stories, suggestions and questions.