Research confirms that just being in the presence of an animal can lower our blood pressure, reduce stress and anxiety, help with anger, depression and loneliness, and even reduce the perception of pain. You already know that when you're walking your dog or have a friend over who pets your cat you find it easier to talk, to open up and be sociable. Social scientists call pets a "social lubricant" - a rather strange term to describe our greater sense of ease around other people when animals are present. For children with autism and other autistic spectrum disorders, animals can be helpful with sensory issues and can facilitate communication and expression of emotion. We also work with animals in therapy to teach children socialization skills - cats are especially good for this.           

While I'd love for everyone to come to our office to meet our amazing therapist-animal teams, there are a few things you can do at home with your own families and pets that will help you and your family have better mental health. Here are some simple things you can do:

1. Hand your pet to a family member who is stressed, nervous, sad or scared. If you have these feelings, hold your pet (close to your heart if you can). Then if you can, talk about what's bothering you with a human.

2. Pet your animal as often as you can. We all need a lot more touch than we give ourselves. You'll lower your stress and make your pet happy.

3. Walk your pet. Cats can even be trained on a leash and the exercise is good for both of you.

4. Talk out loud to your pet when you have a problem that you need to unload. If you feel embarrassed about this - do it in the bathroom with the fan on. Talking out loud is an important step in problem-solving and in healing. Then talk to a human - either ask them to just listen or to help you problem-solve.

5. Cry with your pet after a loss and tell them all the reasons you miss who or what you have lost. Just as above, it's important to share your grief. And they won't ever tire of hearing the same thing after several months.

6. Work with your child to train your pet to do a new trick. This will give you a fun activity that will bring you closer to your child, and they will get to practice some skills that are important for any child to learn: patience, sequencing, cause and effect, positive reinforcement, focus, and completion of a task.

7. If you are isolated or a family member has not been socializing, take your dog to the dog park. Your dog can play with the other dogs while you meet their owners and chat about your adorable pets.

8. If you have time, volunteer with your child at a local humane shelter. They always need folks to walk the dogs or pet the cats. You'll get more exercise, have time to talk to your child, teach your child about volunteerism, and you'll be helping the dogs and cats become more adoptable.

9. Encourage your pet to sleep with your child. Exposure to pets early in life has been shown to reduce allergies, and it makes children feel secure and loved through the night.

10. Play, play, play. And laugh, laugh, laugh! Take time with your children to enjoy the things your pet loves best. Whether it's throwing sticks or stuffed mice, or dangling chew toys or feathers, make time to laugh and be frivolous with your time. You'll all be happier for it.

These are only a few things you can do with your pet to improve your mental health, your family relationships and your animal's happiness. Take some time and discover some of your own.