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Happy minds and healthy bodies

Why we need to consider the mental well-being of our pets in the same way as we need to think about our own mental health

Mental health and well-being have come to the forefront of people’s considerations about their quality of life over recent years, with high profile names being attached to initiatives that help us think more about the impacts of stress and anxiety on our well-being. Especially in the difficult times we are currently living through, taking care of your mental health and managing stress is all the more important. We also need to consider mental well-being for our non-human animal friends and companions. Good health means more than the absence of disease, and similarly, good mental well-being is more than the absence of any “problem behaviours” (Hetts et al., 2004). Pets that live in a positive mental state are more enriching for their owners’ lives too, enhancing the human–animal bond with all the related benefits this brings to both parties. Many species, even when domesticated, have instinctive behaviour patterns that they will use to try to remove themselves from stressful or potentially threatening situations. For example, prey species may become reclusive or hide away and predatory species may become more aggressive. The performance of these behaviours can show that a pet or companion animal’s physical and/or psychological welfare is compromised, and steps should be taken to alleviate the stress response, by removing the stressor and improving the environment that the animal lives in and interacts with. Knowing the normal disposition of a pet is really helpful in signalling unusual changes to behaviour that may indicate poorer well-being (Figure 1). Veterinary surgeons can advise owners on the species-specific ways to improve welfare through changing how the owner engages with the animal (eg tone of voice, body language, posture and movement around the animal), altering the animal’s social environment (more company, less company with others of its kind), changes to diet and husbandry, and use of environmental enrichment to provide behavioural stimulation.

FIGURE (1) Constant exposure to the normal personality and behavioural traits in a family pet can provide an instant and instinctive estimation of the animal’s mental state. How the animal responds to the owner, to other humans and to other animals provides information on health and well-being, with any unusual changes to character being worthy of further investigation

Dogs, cats and livestock (such as cows and horses) will provide signals in their behaviour that, to their owner’s expert eye or the experienced veterinary surgeon, can be easier to pick up and help with earlier identification of issues pertaining to welfare and mental well-being. Specialised veterinary practices that focus on exotic species, such as parrots, tortoises and rabbits, can provide species-specific guidance on health issues in less familiar species that are often related to welfare problems. It is important to remember that we understand what is meant by animal welfare and that animal welfare science is different to the ethics of animal keeping and care. Animal welfare is the state that the individual is in as it tries to cope with its current environment (Broom, 1986). Welfare is experienced by the animal on a sliding scale; it can change from good to bad (and back again) across time (Figure 2).

FIGURE (2) The interaction between what a pet or companion animal is provided with (ie the factors that make up its daily care) and the consequences of these factors as expressed by the animal’s response to them. Behavioural change and the effect of the daily care on the individual can be observed and used as a welfare indicator. Such outcomes can change as the animal grows and develops; therefore, the inputs need to be individual-specific on many levels (life stage, physiological state, age, maturity and sex). It is always important to remember that welfare indicators should be regularly measured to ensure the best possible interpretation

Behavioural indicators of welfare can be used in conjunction with physical signs that an animal is “not doing well” to try to identify the causative factor. Many health problems associated with a change to a pet’s welfare are multifactorial and hence thorough investigation of all areas of how the animal is looked after and interacted with are required to reach a clear decision to alleviate the poor welfare and promote the good. Ethically, however, we have a duty to do the right thing by the animals that we keep and this includes providing them with excellent welfare across all of their life stages. Education of owners or caregivers about the physical and emotional needs of the species that they are keeping goes a long way to ensuring that mental well-being of the animals that share our lives is good.

FIGURE (3) Indicators of poor welfare, such as chronic feather plucking, can have a multifactorial basis. Attempts at coping with an environment that feels beyond the individual’s control causes the animal to resort to damaging or injurious behaviours, which are unwanted by the owner, thus affecting the mental health of the owner as well as the psychological well-being of the pet

As per McMillan (2002), a pet’s emotional needs will include social companionship, mental stimulation, a degree of self-control over its choices and actions and predictability in the care routine provided by the owner. Such a constructive and secure environment will enable the animal to develop the skills required to cope with challenges (eg stressful events) without resorting to abnormal, unwanted or injurious behaviours (Figure 3). It is important to discuss with an owner what aspects of the animal’s daily life could be changed to improve overall mental well-being and quality of life in cases where a pet’s physical and psychological health are poor.

Such considerations are many but some examples are:

  • Increasing occupational activities to alleviate boredom or frustration. For example, toys where a pet works for a reward can fill time when an animal is left alone for short periods (Garvey et al., 2016)
  • Changing feeding times or way of feeding to provide more challenge when foraging. For example, placing food in different receptacles and in different areas to increase activity and the range of behaviours performed (Clarke et al., 2005)
  • Changing the type of food provided. For example, some diets for parrots that are low in essential fatty acids can contribute to feather plucking behaviour – a symptom of chronic stress (Clark, 2013)
  • Evaluating the impact of solitary housing for sociable species. For example, singularly housed rabbits that have not been socialised can be excessively fearful or aggressive as a stress response (Magnus, 2009)
  • Evaluating the impacts of keeping “less than social” species in multi-individual households. For example, competition over resources in multi-cat households can lead to behavioural signs of stress (Clark, 2016)

The links between provision (animal care, diet, housing, social environment) and the animal’s mental well-being and behaviour patterns are clear to see. Animals that are provided with resources that meet their biological requirements and live in an environment where they have a degree of autonomy over what they do and when they do it will be more likely to maintain positive affective states (ie an individual’s tendency to experience positive emotions and hence interact with other animals and challenges around it in a positive way) and thus have better psychological health. Such animals will have an enhanced relationship with their owner or caregiver, cementing a mutually beneficial bond that ultimately provides benefit to the mental health and well-being of both parties. Veterinary surgeons are important “guardians of good welfare”, being well placed to offer advice on correct husbandry, interpret behaviour to explain to an owner what their animal is asking for and provide medical intervention when needed to safeguard the welfare of companion animals.


Broom, D. M.


Indicators of poor welfare. British Veterinary Journal, 142, 524-526

Clark, C.


Dealing with multi-cat households: management and treatment strategies. Companion Animal, 21, 68-74

Clark, P.


Stress reduction for companion parrots

Clarke, D. L., Wrigglesworth, D., Holmes, K., Hackett, R. and Michel, K. E.


Using environmental and feeding enrichment to facilitate feline weight loss. Journal of Animal Physiology and Animal Nutrition, 89, 427-427

Garvey, M., Stella, J.and Croney, C.


Implementing environmental enrichment for dogs

Hetts, S., Heinke, M. L. and Estep, D. Q.


Behavior wellness concepts for general veterinary practice. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 225, 506-513

Magnus, E.


Understanding rabbits part three: Addressing behaviour problems. Veterinary Nurse Times, 9, 17-18

McMillan, F. D.


Development of a mental wellness program for animals. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 220, 965-972

Paul Rose

Animal behaviour lecturer at University of Exeter

Paul Rose, PhD, completed his PhD on the use of social network analysis to assess behaviour and welfare in captive animal populations. Paul is Co-Chair of the IUCN Species Survival Commission Flamingo Specialist Group and Vice-Chair of the BIAZA Research Committee.

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