We bring animals into our lives for many reasons — companionship, a fondness for the softer and cuddlier things in life, and good-old-fashioned unconditional love. But sometimes the reasons are practical, even urgent. Service dogs help people with disabilities to navigate a challenging world. Emotional support animals bring joy and stability to people suffering from mental health problems like anxiety or depression. Therapy dogs brighten the days of elderly people in retirement homes, students in after-school programs, and even inmates in jails and prisons.
But your furry friend doesn’t need to be a full-fledged working animal to bring you positive mental health benefits. As countless surveys and scientific studies have made clear, pets can play a vital role in boosting mental health.
Let’s find out how.
Pets Reduce Stress and Anxiety
Pets help their owners on a physical and chemical level. That’s not speculation or wishful thinking — it’s something that’s been demonstrated in many scientific research studies.
Pets increase stress-relieving hormones. Studies like this one found that interacting with dogs can cause humans to experience an increase in oxytocin — a hormone associated with positive feelings such as love and empathy. Other studies have shown that spending time with pets can boost beneficial brain chemicals like serotonin and dopamine.
Pets decrease stress-causing hormones. A study from Washington State University found that even brief interactions with dogs or cats can significantly reduce the stress-related hormone cortisol.
Pets provide physical health benefits, too. A range of studies — like this one — have shown that pet owners have lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol and lower triglyceride levels than non-owners. This means better heart health and longer lifespans. It also means better mental health, since high blood pressure (AKA hypertension) is associated with anxiety, stress, and depression.
We’re happier — and we live longer — because of our pets. Now you know why.
Pets Ease Loneliness and Encourage Social Relationships
It's no surprise that pets can help with loneliness and social isolation. In one survey from the Human Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI), 80% of pet owners said that their pet helps them feel less lonely. After all, a pet certainly qualifies as a social connection, and human-animal interactions can be profound.
Pets inspire social interactions with other people as well: 54% of pet owners in the HABRI survey said their pet helps them forge connections with other humans. It makes sense — you can always chat with other dog owners at your local park. And even cats or other pets can help people develop friendships by finding common points of interests with other pet owners. One major study found that pet owners are 60% more likely than non-owners to get to know people in their neighborhoods they hadn't known before.
Pets Help Us Develop Healthy Habits
You can’t be a responsible pet parent without developing a solid daily routine — not just for your pet, but for yourself. Feeding your pet at the right times of day often requires waking up and going to sleep at reasonable hours. If you have a dog, giving them the walks and exercise they need means taking walks and getting regular exercise yourself. Physical activity and time outside are crucial for mental health, but people suffering from mental health conditions like depression or anxiety often spend far too much time parked indoors.
Even periodic indoor play sessions with your pet will help keep you grounded in the here-and-now.
Psychologists have long recognized that maintaining a routine is crucial for mental health. Routines add structure and meaning to our lives, help relieve stress, and simply make us happier. If you’re having trouble developing a healthy routine on your own, a pet might just help.
Pets Can Help with PTSD
Even the gruffest of veterans can benefit from a good cuddle. The mental health benefits we’ve already discussed — from reducing stress and anxiety to developing routines — can be downright life-saving for sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). And we’re not just talking about former soldiers, either; trauma survivors of all stripes can see favorable results from bonding with animals.
In fact, treating PTSD sufferers is one of the most common examples of animal-assisted therapy (AAT). AAT can be administered in either individual or group settings, usually with the oversight of trained counselors or therapists. It really works.
Just FYI, therapy dogs shouldn't be confused with service animals, which perform specific tasks like guiding the blind or retrieving prescription meds. Many PTSD sufferers rely on service animals as well.
The Best Types of Pets for Mental Health
If you’re looking for a pet that will always be there to reciprocate your attention — and even help transform your lifestyle in the long-term — a dog might be your best choice. (It’s no coincidence that most therapy animals are dogs.) Dogs tend to be powerfully social creatures, craving fewer moments of solitude than many of their animal counterparts. That means you’ll usually have a snuggle buddy when you need one. And owning a pet dog will always compel you to take walks and explore the great outdoors – or at least trot along a city sidewalk.
On the other hand, if you’re looking for a pet that’s lower maintenance, a cat might be a wiser choice. Heck, even different animals like ferrets, guinea pigs, or iguanas might be a perfect fit for some pet owners. Simply having a furry (or scaly) friend to spend time with can be a great source of comfort.
Any pet can help with mental health issues. Much of the joy and serenity of pet ownership boils down to emotions and body chemistry. Petting your furry family member may be more than enough to get the oxytocin flowing.
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