Image Credit: Getty Images/Rasulovs
Woman in hammock chair interacting with her pets for a natural mood-boost

Animal Magnetism: Why Our Brains Love Wildlife

Reading time | 4 mins
Pet owners or not, we can’t deny that animals are a huge source of wonder, pleasure, and comfort for us humans.
Living with anxiety and depression for several years, Sarah Bailey explores how petting dogs or even “wildlife watching” is one of her go-to mood-boosting activities.
Pets not for you? Not to worry – Sarah also gives her top tips for enjoying the animal kingdom without bringing any critters home.

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I think everyone has some place or interest that brings a great sense of comfort and calm. 

For me, it's either by water or being close to animals. There's something so uplifting about taking a stroll near a canal or wandering along the beach. Seeing birds, mammals, or any kind of creature in their natural habitat makes me feel... free. 

The restraints finally come off. I can roam, discover, and imagine. "Real life" becomes a box in my brain that can be reopened later. For a few hours, nature gives me the keys to escape routine and normality. 

My dog (and best friend), Sally, sadly died a few years ago. Since then, I haven't had a constant animal companion. Instead, I head out into my local area and go "animal spotting." 

Is getting a pet right for you? 

Well, not if you dislike animals! 

Of course, there are many benefits to having a pet in or close to your home. Research shows that getting a dog can improve self-esteem and fitness while reducing loneliness (which, apparently, is as bad for you as smoking). 

I found that Sally gave me a reason to get up in the morning. Rain or shine, come the morning hour, she was in my room and impatient for her breakfast. Although many mornings weren't easy, I'm glad Sally was around to kick-start my day. Looking after myself was one thing but looking after a family member was another. How often would I have stayed in bed if Sally didn't rely on me? 

But pets, especially dogs, are a huge commitment (and lifelong for them). It's not the right choice for everyone. After all, even owning the "easiest" pets takes a lot of time, patience, planning, energy, and money. 

So, how can you interact with animals when you can't or don't own them?

Thankfully, I live near a canal, which is often Dog Walking Central. I've met tons of creative, interesting people with the cutest dogs. There are often street-sellers, too, with a whole host of beautiful trinkets and souvenirs. Sometimes I have to deliberately leave my purse at home to resist temptation. 

Many people who travel on the canals also have pets. I've met cats, dogs, and even parrots. There's no end to the people you can meet or the pet-petting sessions you can have (after I've asked permission, of course!). 

As someone with mobility issues, the flat banks of the canals are also reasonably accessible. As much as I like forests and beaches, sometimes it's nice to feel safe on the flattened tarmac. 

Many towns and cities boast wildlife centers or protected habitat zones if a walk along the canal isn't on the cards. I love the places where human meddling is kept to a minimum, and native wildlife can thrive. 

Though you won't meet (as many) cats and dogs, protected habitat zones are often humming with insects, frogs, birds, hares, snakes, hedgehogs, and more.

Take your walks slowly and steadily, being careful not to make too much noise. If you can take binoculars, the natural world will open up even more!

If snakes and shrews aren't on your "To See" list (understandable), animal shelters and charities usually seek volunteers. There are also plenty of programs that allow you to borrow doggies for walks! You can have all the pleasures of a pet without a long-term commitment. 

Why do animals bring so much calm and happiness into our lives?

There has been a lot of research on animals and their effect on mental well-being. I'm invested in this line of research, as I resonate with so much of the shared results. 

Just petting an animal can lower your stress levels, for example. This happens because playing with cute critters raises our serotonin and dopamine levels (the happiness and reward neurotransmitters). 

Do animals help with mental health long-term? 

Nothing is a magic pill regarding mental health, and animals are included in that. 

Some days, a pet or spotting a beautiful bird will provide a much-needed boost. Other days, you may feel nothing more than a brief spark. Or even frustration/sadness/or worry. Animals are living creatures too, and they get sick or grumpy like humans. They definitely don't exist only to meet our needs. 

However, 9 times out of 10, simply being around animals lifts a great weight from my shoulders. I'm in awe of their purity as they spend their days focused on life's necessities - shelter, sleep, and finding lovely things to eat.

For many animals, playing and pleasure are top priorities too. Ever seen a dog smile when it gets a pat? That's because it means it! 

And, in many ways, happy animals rub off on my mood. I can be having a stinker of a day, but seeing a contented cat or bounding dog usually makes me grin. 

Of course, these fleeting moments don't last forever. But stepping out of myself for a few seconds gives me nourishment as comforting as inhaling fresh, clean air. 

I think I could be more like these glorious creatures and focus on what really matters. 

Do you find being around animals helps your mental health? If so, perhaps a trip to the zoo is on the cards. I may even see you there! 

Note: The information presented is solely for educational purposes, not as specific advice for managing mental health symptoms. Please consult a professional who can apply best practices and appropriate resources to your situation.

NPS-ALL-NP-00696 OCTOBER 2022