Pets can have a huge impact on our mental well-being. Here are just a few of the ways they help make us feel happier and healthier.
Pets are more than just cute, cuddly critters that we enjoy spending time with. After all, there’s a reason pet people often describe their cat or dog as part of their family: They make us feel better when they’re around, both physically and emotionally.
“Historically, the therapeutic benefits of animals are documented maybe earlier than most are aware of,” explains Dr. Larena Davis, counselor and clinical director for The Recovery Village Cherry Hill at Cooper. “Ancient Greeks found that horses appeared to lift the spirits of those very ill.”
“Another significant documented use in history,” she continues, “was in medieval Belgium when humans and animals were rehabilitated together, which showed that companionship has a positive effect.”
Even early anthropological research has found cats domesticated themselves starting in South Asia and befriended humans for a mutually beneficial relationship!
Today, scientific research continues to document these kinds of positive effects. Here are just a few that have been shown:
“Pets can increase our dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin levels,” says Davis, and these hormones, she says, make us feel good or happy.
Oxytocin, for example, is often called the “love” hormone because it fosters the development of bonds with others, including our babies. And researchers have found that when dogs and people look at each other or interact with each other, they both get a surge in oxytocin.
Pets are our companions — they can make us feel loved and accepted, no matter what.
“No matter where you are in life, pets are excited to love you and be loved in return,” explains Davis. “They don’t care how much money you have, where you live, or what you do. They just love you.”
“Love and the need to be loved is a basic and primary human instinct,” she continues. “Pets provide infinite amounts of love that combat feelings of stress, loneliness, sadness, and other negative emotions.”
People can talk, touch, and cuddle with their companion animals.
This is one reason why so many people adopted pets during the pandemic lockdowns — and according to a 2021 study from Malaysia, pets seemed to boost mental health and well-being during those periods of isolation.
Evidence-based guidance, up-to-date resources, and first-hand accounts to help you in your mental health journey.
Decades of research have found a correlation between lower blood pressure and pet ownership.
For example, an older 1988 study, found that petting dogs could help lower people’s heart rates and blood pressure, while a 1992 Australian study found lower blood pressures in pet owners than those who didn’t own pets, even if they had similar BMIs and socioeconomic profiles.
Other research has found pet owners have lower triglyceride and cholesterol levels and heart attack patients live longer if they have a furry friend at home.
That’s why the American Heart Association states that having pets — especially a dog — could reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease.
Pets can help people worry less, which has a beneficial effect on stress and anxiety levels. Plus, “interacting with animals can decrease levels of [the stress hormone] cortisol,” says Davis.
A 2015 study found that growing up with a pet dog was associated with lower levels of childhood anxiety.
And a 2018 study found that therapy dogs helped stressed university students.
Certain pets, like dogs, need time outdoors, so if you have a dog, you’re more likely to leave the house and get fresh air.
This can be especially beneficial for people living with some mental health conditions.
“For some people,” explains Dr. Melissa Geraghty, a psychologist in the Greater Chicago area, “having a pet can make the difference between staying isolated at home and venturing out with their pet.”
Certain pets, such as dogs, require regular exercise, which means that you too might get more exercise as a result.
“Dog owners walk an average of 22 more minutes per day than non-dog owners,” says Tasha Holland-Kornegay, a mental health counselor licensed in North Carolina, Texas, Florida, Mississippi, and Georgia.
She emphasizes that exercise itself can be very beneficial for mental health.
Even a short walk around the block has been shown to reduce anxiety, depression, and negative mood.
Dogs and horses have been found to help reduce feelings of depression, which is why many therapists and psychiatrists sometimes use them as part of therapy.
A 2018 study found that service dogs can help alleviate the symptoms of PTSD in veterans by lowering their depression, improving their resilience, reducing loneliness, and improving their overall psychological well-being.
A 2013 study found similar benefits, that dogs reduced feelings of loneliness, worry, and irritability.
Service dogs can also help people manage psychiatric or medical conditions by performing specific tasks.
For example, “people with service dogs know that their dog will alert them to seizures,” says Geraghty. “This takes an enormous level of stress off a person as they can feel more confident that their canine friend is watching over them.”
For example, a 2016 study of 263 American adults found that pet owners were more satisfied with their lives than those who didn’t have pets.
Pets of all types can help give people companionship, comfort, and a sense of routine. But you may still have some questions related to your mental health:
Is one animal better than another to boost my mental health?
Most of the research has focused on the mental health benefits of horses and dogs.
For example, a 2016 study found dog owners had the highest overall feelings of well-being, compared to cat owners and non-pet people. This could be for a lot of reasons, says Davis.
Yes, cats can be more autonomous, while dogs generally aim to please, and are pack animals, but the greater sense of reward may be because they require more responsibility. Davis notes you might feel a bigger boost to your self-esteem because you’re taking care of them and getting outside more.
However, for some people that added responsibility might be too much, especially if you have physical limitations that slow or prevent your ability to give the dogs the care and exercise they need.
In that case, a lower-maintenance pet — such as a cat — might be better.
Does it matter if I have a standard pet, emotional support animal, or psychiatric service animal?
Service animals and emotional support animals often have specialized training to attend to folks’ specific needs.
However, at the end of the day, the biggest boost to your mental health comes from bonding with your pet — so a “regular” pet can be just as beneficial.
Ultimately, “whichever animal a person feels connected to is the best animal for them,” says Geraghty. “For some people that is dogs, cats, birds, but for others it’s horses or lizards.”
Now that you know the many physiological and psychological benefits of bonding with a pet you might be encouraged to spend more time practicing mindfulness with yours or finding a pet that suits, soothes, and rejuvenates you.