Mental Health Benefits of Pets
The bond between humans and animals is a powerful one, so much so that there have been numerous books written and movies made centering on the relationships between them. Dogs were the first animals domesticated and kept as pets, as much as 45,000 years ago.Regardless of when pet ownership got started, our long attachment to these animals is still going strong. Americans own some 78 million dogs, 85 million cats, 14 million birds, 12 million small mammals, and 9 million reptiles, according to pet industry statistics.
Studies have scientifically explored the benefits of the human-animal bond, and a positive correlation between pets and mental health is undeniable. According to a recent poll, 95% of pet owners consider their pet a member of the family. Children, adolescents, adults, and seniors all find joy in their pets, so it follows that pets and mental health go hand in hand.
Pets provide companionship, ease loneliness, bring us joy, and give us unconditional love. They also help decrease depression, anxiety, and stress. While the word “pet” usually conjers up thoughts of dogs and cats, a pet doesn’t necessarily have to be a dog or a cat. Even watching fish in an aquarium has been shown to reduce muscle tension and lower pulse rate. A pet can be a horse, parrot, turtle, rabbit, skunk, lizard, chicken, snake…whatever you love and take care of.
Pets have evolved to become acutely attuned to humans. Dogs, for example, are about as intelligent as a two-year-old human child. Some more doggie fun facts: They are able to understand about 150 human words and most are even capable of following a count of five. They understand spatial relationships and are able to use them to navigate obstacles quickly. Although they can’t see the same color spectrum we can, they can see black, white, blue, and yellow; they can’t see red and green- those just look gray to them. A dog’s smell is like 10 million times better than yours. Dogs can sense if you’re going to have a seizure, they know if your blood sugar is low, and some say they can even sniff out cancer. While they understand many of our words, dogs are even better at interpreting our tone of voice, body language, and gestures. And like any good human friend, a loyal dog will look into your eyes to gauge your emotional state and try to understand what you’re thinking and feeling (and to use their special psychic powers to get you to give them treats and throw their ball, of course). I think dogs have psychic powers. My dog Beluga used to use her psychic powers to get me to do stuff all the time.
Pets, especially dogs and cats, can reduce stress, anxiety, and depression, ease loneliness, encourage exercise and playfulness, and even improve cardiovascular health. Caring for an animal can help children grow up feeling more secure and being more active. Pets also provide good companionship for older adults. Perhaps most importantly, a pet can add real joy and unconditional love to your life.
Early researchers had discovered physical evidence of the mental health benefits of having pets. They found that pets could fulfill the human need for touch, so when hugging or stroking a pet, the human subject’s blood pressure went down, their heart rate slowed, their breathing became more regular, and their muscle tension relaxed. All of these physical changes are signs of reduced stress, which is indicative of a positive psychological impact.
Since then, scientists have learned much more about the connection between pets and mental health. As a result, animal-assisted therapy programs have become an important part of mental health treatment. But, by owning a pet, you can experience pet therapy benefits every day in your own home. Below are several ways in which pets support good mental health and how pets are beneficial to people with mental health issues.
Interacting with Pets Lowers Stress and Decreases Anxiety:
Just the sensory act of stroking a pet lowers blood pressure, which reduces stress. Petting and playing with animals also reduces levels of the stress hormone cortisol while stimulating endorphin production and release of the happy hormones serotonin and dopamine, which calm and relax the nervous system. It also increases the production of oxytocin, another chemical that naturally reduces stress. Having the companionship of an animal can offer comfort, help ease anxiety, and build self-confidence for people anxious about going out into the world.
Pets Make Us Feel Needed:
The act of caretaking has mental health benefits. Caring for another living thing gives us a sense of purpose and meaning, so people feel more needed and wanted when they have a pet to care for. This is true even when the pets don’t interact very much with their caregivers. In a very interesting 2016 study about pets and mental health, elderly people were given five crickets in a cage to care for. Researchers monitored their mood over eight weeks and compared them to a control group that was not caring for crickets or other pets. They found that participants that were given the crickets became less depressed after eight weeks than those in the control group, so researchers concluded that caring for living creatures produced the mental health benefits they saw. Simply put, doing things for the good of others reduces depression and loneliness.
Pets Increase Well-Being:
Pet owners lives are enriched and generally better in several areas. They have better self-esteem, they are more physically fit, they are less lonely, they are more conscientious and less preoccupied, they are more extroverted, and they are less fearful. Put simply, pet owners are happier, healthier, and better adjusted than non-owners.
Pets Provide Companionship:
Companionship can help prevent illness and even add years to your life, while isolation and loneliness can trigger symptoms of depression. Caring for a live animal can help you shift your focus away from your problems, especially if you live alone. Most dog and cat owners talk to their pets, and some even use them as a sounding board to work through their troubles. And nothing beats loneliness like coming home to a wagging tail or a purring cat.
Cats and Dogs Are Great Examples: Because pets live in the moment- not worrying about what happened yesterday or what might happen tomorrow- they can help you appreciate life’s simple joys and help you to be more mindful. Mindfulness is a psychological technique, the process of bringing one’s attention to the present moment. This can help distract you from what might be bothering you and help remind you to try to be more carefree and playful. In people diagnosed with mental illnesses like depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or post-traumatic stress disorder, pets can be among the most supportive connections they have. They provide a unique form of validation through unconditional support, which they may not have in other relationships. Patients report that pets help them manage their illness, navigate everyday life, and give them a strong sense of identity, self-worth, and meaning. Caring for a pet gave owners a feeling of being in control as well as a sense of security and routine. Most said that their pets helped them manage their emotions and distract them from their symptoms like hearing voices, habitual rumination, and even suicidal thoughts, because they felt needed by their pet.
Pets Help Us Build Healthy Habits:
Pets need to be taken care of every day, and as a result, they help us build healthy habits and routines and add structure to the day. Many pets, especially dogs, require a regular feeding and exercise schedule. Having a consistent routine keeps an animal balanced and calm, and it’s good for people too. No matter your mood, one plaintive look from your pet and you’ll have to get out of bed to care for them. Caring for a pet can help you adopt healthy lifestyle changes, which play an important role in easing symptoms of depression, anxiety, stress, bipolar disorder, and PTSD. Some examples of these healthy lifestyle changes include:
Physical activity: Dog owners need to take their pets for walks, runs, and/ or hikes regularly, and owners receive the benefits of that exercise. Studies show that dog owners are more likely to meet recommended daily exercise requirements.
Time in nature: Walking a dog or riding a horse gets us outside, so we experience the many mental health benefits of being outdoors.
Getting up in the morning: Dogs and cats need to be fed on a regular schedule. As a result, pet owners need to get up and take care of them, no matter what mood they are in. So in this way, pets give people a reason to get up and start the day.
Pet care leads to self-care: Caring for a dog, horse, or cat reminds us that we must take care of ourselves as well.
Pets Support Social Connection: Pets can be a great social lubricant for their owners, helping to start and maintain new friendships. Pets are able to counteract social isolation and promote social connection by relieving social anxiety, because they provide a common topic to talk about. For example, walking a dog or playing in a dog park often leads to conversations with other dog owners. As a result, dog owners tend to be more socially connected and less isolated. This improves the owners’ mental health, because people who have more social relationships and friendships tend to be mentally healthier. The benefits of having social connections include better self-esteem, lower rates of anxiety and depression, a happier, more optimistic outlook, stronger emotional regulation skills, improved cognitive functioning, and having more empathy and feelings of trust toward others.
Pets Give Us Unconditional Love:
This one is best of all! Dogs and cats and pets of all kinds love their owners no matter what. That’s unconditional love. Pets don’t care how your presentation went, how you did on a test, or if you sold a house. Pets don’t judge you based on what you look like, if you are popular, or if you’re super athletic. They’re simply happy to see you, and they want to spend time with you, no matter what! This kind of unconditional love is good for mental health. It stimulates the brain to release dopamine, the chemical involved in sensing pleasure.
To summarize, the link between pets and mental health is clear. So if you don’t have a pet, think about getting one. For a dog or cat, go to a shelter or humane society and adopt somebody, take them home and make them a member of the family. Or maybe talk to a doctor about finding an emotional support animal. Either way, it’ll do you good and you’ll feel good for it.