Pets offer companionship and unconditional love and evidence suggests they can help to reduce our anxiety and stress. We hear from some of our readers about how animals have aided their mental health

Our pets can be a fabulous source of comfort in times of stress. They boost our mental health and those that require regular exercise ensure we stay physically fit, too. They are great motivators and, in darker days, can pull us out of our gloom and doom in an instant. They give us purpose and love us no matter what – arguably, unconditional affection rivalled by no human relationship we might experience.

The pandemic has seen an explosion in the number of people purchasing or adopting pets – unsurprising when you consider the socially isolating impact of lockdowns when many of us were forced to spend prolonged periods of time at home.

A study entitled Pets, touch, and COVID-19: health benefits from non-human touch through times of stress,1 addressed the fact that the rules limiting our interaction with each other during the pandemic put an end to human-to-human contact, including physical touch, and that this hit us all in a hugely detrimental way. The research suggested that, with more than half of the world’s population having pets, these relationships may be one of our greatest health-promoting resources during these troubled times. Indeed, owning a pet has been observed to reduce blood pressure, loneliness, anxiety, fearfulness and generally contribute to improved wellbeing.

Elsewhere, a survey conducted in September 2020, suggested sharing a home with a pet appeared to act as a buffer against psychological stress during lockdown.2 Most people in the research perceived their pets to be a source of considerable support in the period between 23 March-1 June, 2020.

The study, from the University of York and the University of Lincoln, found that having a pet was linked to maintaining better mental health and reducing loneliness. Around 90% of the 6,000 UK participants had at least one pet. The strength of the human-animal bond did not differ significantly between species, with the most common pets being cats and dogs followed by small mammals and fish.

More than 90% of respondents said their pet helped them cope emotionally with the lockdown and 96% said their pet helped keep them active.

Horse whisperers

Dental nurse Gill Geary has worked at Lynwood Dental & Implant Centre in Surrey for 31 years. She enjoys horse riding and volunteers at a local stable. She says: ‘A few years ago, I read an article in a magazine about how horse riding can help to reduce stress levels. I decided to give it a go and haven't looked back since. Time spent with horses is the best way to de-stress. Riding never goes well if the stress levels are high and horses pick up on that. However, time spent grooming, mucking out and just generally being with them is the perfect way to forget all my troubles. My rescue cat also does wonders for calming me down. Animals are a true godsend.’

Fiona Ellwood, executive director of the Society of British Dental Nurses (SBDN), agrees. She says: ‘I have experience of working with animals and particularly horses and ponies as part of Riding for the Disabled Association, who help people to flourish, delivering coaching and therapy. My animals are my guardians; they make me switch off. My horses are the greatest levellers in life. Their strength, power but sensitivity far exceeds many. They could teach us a thing or two in this world.’

Kathryn Dellow has been a dental nurse for six-and-a-half years and works at New Road Dental Practice in the historic market town of Saffron Walden in Essex.

She grew up with horses and bought an ex-racehorse in 2014 who, she says, ‘is my absolute sanity! I’ve become very aware of the importance of looking after my mental health after developing anxiety three years ago. Rose is my "happy place" and time spent with her is much needed clear-thinking time, especially during the pandemic. Rose came off the track as a three-year-old and was having a break from racing. I wasn’t actively looking to buy a horse, but I completely fell for her and couldn’t let her go. We’ve been together ever since, retrained by myself to be a leisure horse.

She adds: ‘I absolutely love dental nursing but everyone must take time for themselves. I also have a four-year-old wild rabbit called Pea, who I found as a baby with his eyes still closed and presumably dropped by a predator. I hand-reared him (guided by my vet) and he’s as strong as ever! And my cat, Casanova, was adopted from the RSPCA last year. We’d just lost our first cat and was grateful for Cas coming into our lives. He had been passed around a few centres and was unfortunately a long-stay resident. He’s found his forever home now.’

Kathryn notes: ‘I’ve learnt to accept that anxiety is part of my life. This pandemic is not without its challenges, but I have an extremely supportive family around me. My return to work was made much easier with my friendly colleagues. My horse was definitely a huge part of looking after my mental health. She’s taught me more than I could ever teach her. To bury my head into my horse’s fur and say nothing at all is wonderful. I know she hears me. She’s my escape from the world.’

Fellow horse lover and oral health lecturer, Debbie Coyle, is equally enthusiastic. She says: ‘I am blessed to have my lovely boy in my life. He has helped keep my sanity and offered moments of calm in the storm during the first wave. They heal us and they humble us. They are worth their weight in gold. Aaron had taught me plenty. Without Aaron, I’d have had no reason to leave the house and exercise. It kept a sense of routine, getting up to muck him out at the stables at 6.00am ensured I got up at a good time to start the day positively. I’m sure it could be very easy to fall into a pattern of sleeping in until 12.00noon.’

Angela Edwards has had Rufus since he was a foal. He will be 18 this year. He is a pure-bred moorland Exmoor pony, an endangered breed.

Angela says: ‘I am the sole dental nurse at Cheshire Dental Care, a small mixed practice. We have all been working very hard with no real breaks. We spent the first lockdown triaging emergencies and referring to urgent dental care centres when appropriate. When we were allowed to reopen, our principal sourced enough PPE so we quickly resumed a new kind of normal. It has been both challenging and stressful to keep up with the changes in SOPs and, just when you think things are settling down, we are informed of the targets we need to meet.

'Having Rufus to spend time with has been such a blessing. My day off is a Wednesday and grooming and going for a ride around the beautiful countryside has been very therapeutic. I can feel all the knots just disappearing from my shoulders! It really sets me up for the next few days.’

Dog delights

For lead dental nurse Amy Griffiths, who works at Bath Orthodontics, 2020 was a year of highs and lows.

She explains: ‘I started the year well after purchasing my first house. Then the coronavirus hit, leaving me like many people without the daily structure to my life. I felt a little lost. I tried to focus on achieving small things each day, such as CPD, exercising, decorating and gardening. On returning to work in June it was strange to say the least, with all these new measures and crazy amounts of PPE. I feel very fortunate to work in a practice were we all came together and took everything in our stride. It’s amazing how quickly you can adjust when needed and everything soon become the new normal.'

She adds: ‘I have found the last 11 months quite stressful, in part due to having little control over personal plans. I don’t live close to family, so I found it difficult not being able to see them for months on end. Work did have occasional stressful days as to be expected – we all know there are moments in dentistry that don’t go as planned.

‘However, Stanley my eight-month Cockapoo has been my little stress-buster. He has kept me busy in my free time with lots of training, which is so rewarding when it finally sinks in. He has made me go out and explore the countryside around me in the sunshine and the rain. He has been a huge focus for both my partner and me this year and has brought so much joy. I have also met new people when walking him so it’s been nice to get to know others and share tips on training.

'I now have no idea what my life was like before having Stanley. He’s certainly the best thing to come out of 2020 for us.’

Dannii Schroven works at Abbey Orthodontics in Romsey, Hampshire. She bought Ruben, a part-Maltese, part-poodle and part-Yorkshire terrier, in 2018 with her fiancée Elliot.

She says: 'Ruben is a really funny little character and brings the family happiness during these unsettling times. He helped push us out for walks and made us feel comfortable to be outside again.

'When the lockdown happened, it was a shock and really scary. Your immediate thought was, "I don’t want to go out", but the dog needed walking so we walked. I felt so much better after having our regular one-hour jaunts in the morning and I’d come home after my shift at the emergency clinic to go out with him again. It felt good to release some energy, especially after a long day of AGPs.⇐
⇔‘I love coming home to my pup. I love watching his excitement when I come home through the door after work. It’s a fact that cuddling your dog releases happy endorphins.’

Scarlett Bowker is studying dental therapy at Plymouth University. Her four-year-old Newfoundland dog, Hagrid, has given her fresh perspective and a purpose.

She explains:’ ‘At the early stages of COVID-19 in the first lockdown, when I wasn’t working or at college studying, he forced me to get up and go out with him and to keep his day as entertaining as possible. When I moved to Plymouth for university, I was devastated to leave him. I wish I could have taken him, but my parents were sending me "pupdates" and looking after him for me. When I was home from university, he gave me a drive to get up and go. I started to walk him further and took him places he’d never been before to make sure he was having as much fun as possible. He’s always there to listen and to snuggle. In the morning he’s very playful and barks a lot, which always puts a smile on my face. Without him, I’d be so down. He cheers me up so much – just to see his face and his beautiful brown eyes looking at me makes me so happy.’

Her regular walks with Hagrid offer an opportunity to clear her head while exercising. She says: ‘It takes me a lot to get motivated and I never would have gone walking alone. I’d like to hope everything can go back to normal soon so that Hagrid and I can go exploring different areas, I’d love to take him to Cornwall for the weekend to play on the beaches or go camping in the Lake District.’
Follow Hagrid on Instagram @hagridthenewf!

Laura Horton, of Horton Consulting, is an ‘outdoors person who loves walking with Monty, her seven-year-old Cockapoo. She says: ‘Having a dog is great as every day you are up and out in the fresh air – no matter what the weather. That is really good for me, it also ensures I take a break in the afternoons on working days.

‘Monty is my running partner, too, when I can and having that “one exercise a day” during lockdown was my lifesaver. In lockdown 3, it is winter and I love cold winter mornings. I layer up and get out there with Monty. As I am self-employed, I rarely take a break during the day but it is so important.’

Amanda Oakey is director of educational resources at the Oral Health Foundation. Her Great Dane is Blue Blythe Morning Glory, or more commonly known as Bella, and has been a godsend, too. She says: ‘As I am immune suppressed, I haven’t been out anywhere really since March. Working from home since then, the love from her and demand for a daily walk has meant I have met and chatted with many people. Bella is super friendly and likes to stop and say hello to everyone, preventing me from becoming totally unsociable! I just love her.’

Nicky Brewer is a dental nurse and works at Smile Locum, based in the south west. Her life fell apart when she lost a baby daughter and her son was put onto the autism pathway in March 2020, just as the pandemic started.

She says: ‘My dog was my world during the pandemic. She was extremely important to me as I couldn’t see family or friends, and she was always there when I felt down. She was a great comfort but, unfortunately, Princess passed away two weeks ago, aged 15.

‘I’m feeling overwhelmed still as I’ve fallen pregnant again – this was a total shock to us and this happened in July. I still get bad anxiety and it was always soothed by taking my dog out and giving her cuddles. I have a loving husband and wonderful family, but I must admit having her always there was a great comfort. The love that she showed and her loyalty are like nothing else.’

Stephanie Bunker is head dental nurse at Windmill Dental in Southwick West Sussex.

She says: ‘I’ve had my own dogs from age 16, and they were always rescue dogs. I sadly lost my last “furbaby” over a year ago – a rescue Staffordshire Bull Terrier called Vern, who had his own quirks and medical issues, which made me love him more. I worked through most of the first lockdown, answering/making calls and helping my new boss. I have struggled with mental health issues from an early age and the one thing that has pulled me through some tough times is having a dog to come home to.

Coming home to a wagging tail and sitting and cuddling them is so calming. I have had all my dogs from rescue centres but truly the dogs rescued me. I found it incredibly tough without one, made more difficult by social media posts of friends and colleagues posting pictures of their dogs. I don’t resent this – I’m happy for them, as I know the joy they bring but, never the less, I truly at times felt so alone. Unconditional love is what a dog brings.

'Sadly, through lockdown we have not had one, but I recently started a dog-grooming course on my day off and am looking forward to trying something new.'

She adds: 'I’ve been dental nursing for 16 years and this pandemic has pushed me to do something for me with animals that I adore.’

Trudie Dawson is a practice manager at Ham Dental in Kingston-upon-Thames, Surrey. She says: ‘Our springer spaniels are both working dogs and they have always been extremely important members of our family. In 2020, this became more evident. My husband has been working from home now from early March last year. Both our working dogs have adapted to this situation extremely well, and are both very committed office helpers. For me, they are that constant friend in the garden, helping with all the tasks. The oldest particularly enjoys helping me when working with my chickens. He is very emphatic and knows when I need emotional support in the form of playing retrieve. They keep us very grounded with their unconditional acceptance and I wouldn’t be without them.’

Annabelle Ariza is clinical lead dental nurse at Bupa Dental Care Croydon.

Roger is a six-year-old Bichon Frise and his birthday is on 12 December, ‘making him a very adventurous and cheeky Sagittarius pooch,’ says Annabelle. ‘Roger has supported me emotionally and mentally through university, dental nursing training and all my postgraduate dental nurse training courses. He is my absolute rock!

‘Roger will be the first person I see when I get home after a long day at work. Before I get through the front door, he is already looking through the window when I am on my way up the stairs, barking to let me know he has spotted me. He is always so happy to see me and I am always so happy to see him. Any stress I experience on my way home is automatically lifted the second I see him.

‘Roger represents "home". I look forward to my weekends because I get to spend more quality time with Roger, which to me is priceless. For something so small and fluffy that does not speak human he has the powerful ability to make me feel so happy and uplifted. Roger connects with me emotionally and mentally in so many ways that helps me to ease common daily anxieties I may be experiencing. He understands me better than some humans.’

Anabelle adds: ‘Dentistry is by far one of the most stressful job sectors to work in and COVID-19 has, of course ,only added to this. As a clinical member of staff, it requires a high level of concentration during procedures and interaction with people from all different walks of life to deliver the best level of dental care to them. This can be challenging and mentally exhausting at times. Animals offer a balance because they help us to get back in touch with our own reality and with nature.’

Ben’s bees

Dr Ben Atkins is president of the Oral health Foundation. For him, keeping pets is all about ‘enjoying being in the moment and the mindfulness this brings’.

He explains: ‘Bee husbandry focuses the mind, takes me away from dentistry and puts me in a great place. There is such delight seeing the first flight of the bees in February or March – the fact that they have survived the winter indicates that I may be able to! Since selling my businesses, it has given me a focus and reminds me that the world does not revolve around teeth. Finding a passion in nature is eye opening. The ability to slow down and share with my family the joy of collecting the eggs in the morning and caring for our rabbits that we rescued from the RSPCA adds a different dimension to life. The focus of new rabbits gave the children excitement between online lessons.

‘Painting the hives and prepping with my children gave me insight into time and how best to spend it; it really is the most important gift. Bee keeping has given me some normality when life is not normal. Bees wait for no one.’