Almost 60% of Brits own a pet, and for a good reason. With their cute little faces and quirky personalities, pets provide hours of entertainment, devoted friendship and unconditional love. Studies have proven that animals, great and small, can improve our well-being and mental health. If you don’t have the space for a large, time-consuming pet like a horse or a dog, small mammals such as hamsters, rabbits and guinea pigs or even birds and reptiles can be a brilliant addition to the family.
Help prevent loneliness
Animals can make wonderful companions and help keep loneliness at bay, which might explain why 3.2 million households acquired a pet during the COVID-19 lockdowns. Coming home to a pet, especially for the elderly or those who live alone, can be a great comfort. Feeling a small animal’s affection and trust grow in you as you care for them is deeply satisfying and can help people at risk of loneliness feel a sense of purpose and belonging. Surprisingly, rabbits are exceptionally affectionate and social animals, especially when kept indoors as a house pet.
Reduce anxiety and depression
Studies have shown repeatedly that positively interacting with animals reduces blood pressure and releases feel-good hormones in our brains, which in turn reduces stress levels and heart rate. There is something about watching small animals go about their simple lives without worries or stress that is innately calming and humbling – even watching fish swim about has been proven to have this effect. Pet-therapy is great for adults and children alike who struggle with mental health issues such as anxiety, depression or PTSD.
The sense of pride felt when caring for a pet builds confidence and self-esteem, particularly for children. Keeping a small pet means keeping their habitat clean, feeding them and interacting with them. This teaches important life skills to children such as responsibility and accountability. Children love to look after small animals and it is a lovely way to encourage an empathetic and caring attitude which will help them throughout their lives.
Increase social skills
In the words of Alan Beck, from the Purdue University Centre for the Human-Animal Bond, “97% of pet owners talk to their pets and the other three percent are liars.” Communicating with people is hard sometimes, but pets don’t criticise or judge and are excellent listeners. Confiding in them, teaching them tricks and playing with them increases our social skills and makes us feel understood and heard. For children, caring for a small pet helps them practise vital social skills, as well as learning to be gentle, patient and kind.
Help process grief and loss
An unfortunate truth is that we all lose people, and animals, that we love. Having a pet to love and care for can be very therapeutic when grieving, and many people find reassurance in the routine of caring for them. As wonderful as small pets are, they tend not to live as long as cats and dogs. Small rodents such as hamsters and gerbils only live for 2-3 years, which can be heartbreaking. However, for children this opens an opportunity to learn to cope with death.
Whichever small animal you choose to add to your family, be sure to do thorough research around the needs and requirements for their specific species. Many small pet products do not meet recommended standards and can even be dangerous to your new friend, so it’s worth reading up on how to care for them properly.