According to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), human-animal bonds are essential to human health. This bond even applies to aquatic creatures, like fish. After dogs and cats, the 2019-2020 National Pet Owners Survey discovered that fish are the third leading types of pets in American households. It’s easy to see why a furry lapdog can benefit mental health; its warm body and soft fur can lower anyone’s stress levels. But, can an animal without fur be an emotional support animal (ESA) and decrease anxiety, just like dogs can? Yes! Fish can decrease stress levels and help their owners feel calmer. Read on below to understand how pet fish can help with anxiety. 

Fish and the Human-Animal Bond

A pet doesn’t have to be furry to be enjoyable. According to the Human-Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI), the “Pet Effect” applies to all pets—reptiles, amphibians, birds, and even fish. Caring for a pet can help improve mental well-being by actively engaging parts of the brain crucial to feelings of calmness. The very act of feeding, grooming, and interacting with another living being helps create the aforementioned Pet Effect.

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The Power of Fish

You’ll find large fish tanks and exotic saltwater tanks in dental offices, emergency rooms, and in the lobbies of high-end resorts. The presence of these fish tanks isn’t just for aesthetic purposes, though they are beautiful. They are there because fish have a distinct psychological effect: they help to calm people down. 

Exposure to natural environments, like aquariums, can reduce the physical symptoms of anxiety by lowering blood pressure and reducing heart rate. Watching fish, even just one fish, interact with their environment can help manage stress in high-stress situations. Fish glide through the water with graceful movements, providing the viewer with a sense of serenity. And because aquatic environments are typically filled with color, the contrasting imagery can mentally distance a person from a stressful environment. In short, fish tanks are a great way to put people at ease in places where they may otherwise feel anxious. 

Pet Fish as Aquatic Stress Reducer

There is extensive research behind the beneficial effects of fish on stress. As reported on the BBC and published in the journal Environment and Behavior, watching fish swim for as little as 10 minutes can reduce blood pressure and create a feeling of relaxation. A study with university students found that watching fish in an aquarium reduced heart rates significantly and lowered systolic and diastolic blood pressure. Interestingly, the more decorated the aquariums were, the longer the students wanted to keep watching the fish. 

The sound of the flowing water adds to the experience. Having an aquarium for a pet fish brings the sound of nature right into a home, like the rhythmic sound of water at the beach or a lake. A decorated aquarium—with rocks, plants, and an aerator—brings the outdoors’ sight and sounds even closer. 

Most fish acknowledge their onlookers only for a few moments, then go on their merry way. Fish are oblivious to the comings and goings of our daily lives. This contrast allows owners to remove themselves from their situation mentally temporarily when they are watching their fish, no matter how stressful their lives may be. 

Can pet fish help with anxiety - ESADoctors
A rich, decorated aquarium can increase the effect of pet fish to reduce anxiety.

Fish as Emotional Support Animal

Having a fish as an emotional support animal is very different from having a dog or a cat; it is another human-animal interaction style. A person can’t hold a fish or take it on hikes. Instead, having a fish means connecting with it through an aquarium or a pond. This physical barrier doesn’t make the bond less meaningful. It does, however, depend on the needs of the owner. Some people prefer caring for fish over other animals because they’re low-maintenance and relatively worry-free. Others enjoy the aquatic environment and all that goes with it. 

If you’re thinking of getting a fish as an ESA, there are a few things to consider. Certain fish require a specific amount of space to swim in, and all fish need oxygen in their water. Inquire with your pet store regarding what type of tank, filtration and aeration system, and chemicals you may need to keep your fish healthy. It’s not as easy as walking out with a fishbowl and a goldfish, so be prepared for the setup. 

After the initial preparations, your fish will be the low-maintenance stress-reducing wonders that they’re known for. It’s the stark difference in the environment, their ability to move through water, and the physical barriers from our world, that add to their anxiety-reducing properties. The very things that make fish so different from other pets are what make them so beneficial.

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