The bonds between humans and animals are powerful. And the positive correlation between pets and mental health is undeniable. According to a 2015 Harris poll, 95 percent of pet owners think of their animal as a member of the family. And that’s true no matter how old we are. Children, adolescents, adults, and seniors all find joy in their pets. Therefore, pets and mental health go hand in hand.
Furthermore, research validates the benefits of pets for mental health. The mental health benefits of owning a dog or cat have been proven by many scientific studies. Animals help with depression, anxiety, and stress. In addition, they provide companionship and ease loneliness. Moreover, pets bring us joy and unconditional love.
Early Research on Pets and Mental Health
The first research on pets and mental health was published 30 years ago. Psychologist Alan Beck of Purdue University and psychiatrist Aaron Katcher of the University of Pennsylvania conducted the study. Therefore, they measured what happens to the body when a person pets a friendly dog. Here’s what they found:
- Blood pressure went down
- Heart rate slowed
- Breathing became more regular
- Muscle tension relaxed.
These are all signs of reduced stress. Therefore, the researchers had discovered physical evidence of the mental health benefits of pets.
The Power of Animal-Assisted Therapy
Since then, scientists have discovered 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. Moreover, individuals benefit from owning mental health animals, such as an emotional support dog.
Since the 1990s, teen mental health programs have incorporated equine therapy programs. Equine Assisted Therapy actively involves horses in mental health treatment. The human-horse connection allows teens to address emotions and issues. They do this through a powerful, direct experience of nonverbal communication.
However, we can experience pet therapy benefits every day in our own homes. Below are 10 ways in which pets support mental health.
Interacting with Pets Lowers Our Stress Hormones
Studies around pets and mental health show that petting and playing with animals reduces stress-related hormones. And these benefits can occur after just five minutes of interacting with a pet. Therefore, pets are very helpful for anxiety sufferers.
Playing with a dog or cat raises our levels of serotonin and dopamine. These are hormones that calm and relax the nervous system. When we smile and laugh at our pets’ cute behavior, that helps stimulate the release of these “happiness hormones.”
Pets and Mental Health: Lowering Stress
Moreover, interacting with a friendly dog reduces levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. And it increases the release of oxytocin—another chemical in the body that reduces stress naturally. That’s why animal-assisted therapy is so powerful.
Furthermore, the sensory act of stroking a pet lowers blood pressure. Therefore, it reduces stress. Consequently, studies have shown that dogs can help calm hyperactive or aggressive children.
In one study, a group of stressed-out adults was told to pet a rabbit, a turtle, or a toy. Touching the toy didn’t have any effects. However, stroking the rabbit or turtle relieved anxiety. In addition, even people who didn’t particularly like animals experienced the benefits.
Pets Protect Against Childhood Anxiety
A pet dog may protect children from anxiety, according to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A total of 643 children participated in the study. A little over half of them had pet dogs in the home. Researchers measured the children’s BMI (body mass index), anxiety levels, screen time, and physical activity.
As a result, they found that all the children had similar BMIs, screen time, and physical activity. This held true whether or not they had pet dogs. But their anxiety levels were different. In fact, 21 percent of the children who did not have a pet dog tested positive on a screening test for anxiety. However, only 12 percent of children with dogs tested positive for anxiety.
Therefore, pets clearly have a beneficial effect on childhood stress and anxiety. As a result, children who grow up with pets may have a better chance of becoming happy and healthy teens.
Our Pets Make Us Feel Needed
People feel more needed and wanted when they have a pet to care for. The act of caretaking has mental health benefits. Caring for another living thing gives us a sense of purpose and meaning.
Furthermore, this is true even when the pets don’t interact very much with their caregivers. In a 2016 study around pets and mental health, elderly people were given five crickets in a cage. Researchers monitored their mood over eight weeks. Moreover, they compared them to a control group that was not caring for pets.
As a result, the participants that were given crickets became less depressed after eight weeks than those in the control group. Therefore, researchers concluded that caring for a living creature produced the mental health benefits.
Thus, doing things for the good of others reduces depression and loneliness.
Pets Increase Our Sense of Self-Esteem and Well-Being
Recently, psychologists at Miami University and Saint Louis University conducted three experiments on the benefits of pet ownership. Subsequently, the American Psychological Association published the results.
The studies showed that pet owners had improved well-being in various areas, including the following:
- Better self-esteem
- More physically fit
- Less lonely
- More conscientious and less preoccupied
- More extroverted
- Less fearful.
In the first study, 217 people answered questions about their well-being, personality type, and attachment style. And pet owners were happier, healthier, and better adjusted than non-owners.
A second experiment involved 56 dog owners. Researchers examined pet owners’ feelings about their pets. In addition, they measured their well-being. One group of people reported that their dogs increased their feelings of belonging, self-esteem, and meaning. Thus, these participants showed greater overall well-being than the other participants.
Furthermore, 97 undergraduates with an average age of 19 participated in the third study. As a result, researchers found that pets can help adolescents feel better after experiencing rejection.
The teens were asked to write about a time when they felt excluded. Then they were asked to do one of three things: write about their favorite pet, write about their favorite friend, or draw a map of their campus. And writing about pets was just as effective as writing about a friend in combating feelings of rejection.
Cats and Dogs Are Great Examples of Being in the Moment
Pets live in the moment. In other words, they don’t worry about what happened yesterday. Moreover, they aren’t worried about what might happen tomorrow.
As a result, pets can help people become more mindful. Mindfulness is the psychological process of bringing one’s attention to the present moment. Therefore, pets can help teens enjoy and appreciate the present moment.
In addition, pets help distract teens from what’s bothering them. And spending time with a pet helps teens remember how to be playful and carefree.
Pets Support Recovery from Mental Illness
Pets are extremely helpful for people recovering from severe mental health conditions. A new meta-analysis looked at 17 academic papers drawn from nine medical databases. As a result, researchers found evidence that having a pet benefits people with mental health conditions.
The papers looked at how cats, dogs, hamsters, finches, and even goldfish affected the mental well-being of people living with a mental illness. Overall, the review found that pets helped the participants to manage their emotions. In addition, it distracted them from the symptoms of their mental health condition.
For example, a 2016 study at the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom involved 54 participants. All of them had been diagnosed with severe mental illnesses, such as depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or post-traumatic stress disorder.
As a result, 60 percent of participants placed a pet in their most important circle of supportive connections. Furthermore, about half of the participants said that pets helped them manage their illness and everyday life. Having pets also gave them a strong sense of identity, self-worth, and meaning. Moreover, pets distracted them from symptoms like hearing voices, suicidal thoughts, or rumination.
Moreover, caring for a pet also gave owners a feeling of being in control. Plus, it gave them a sense of security and routine.
One participant said, “When I was so depressed, I was kind of suicidal. The thing that made me stop was wondering what the rabbits would do. That was the first thing I thought of … I can’t leave because the rabbits need me.”
“Pets provided a unique form of validation through unconditional support, which they were often not receiving from other family or social relationships,” said Dr. Helen Brooks, lead author of the study. Dr. Brooks and her team concluded that pet ownership has a valuable contribution to mental health. Therefore, it should be incorporated into patients’ individual care plans of patients.
Pets Help Us Build Healthy Habits
Pets need to be taken care of every day. As a result, they help us build healthy habits and routines.
Physical activity: Dog owners need to take their pets for walks, runs, and hikes regularly. Therefore, owners receive the benefits of exercise. Studies show that dog owners are far more likely to meet recommended daily exercise requirements.
Time in nature: Walking a dog or riding a horse gets us outside. As a result, 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. Hence, pets give people a reason to get up and start their day.
Pet care supports self-care: Caring for a dog, horse, or cat reminds us to care for ourselves as well. For example, teens that groom horses in Equine Assisted Therapy remember the importance of caring for their own health.
Our Pets Help Build Relationship Skills
Research shows that children who are emotionally attached to their dogs have an easier time building relationships with other people. Hence, because dogs follow human cues, they support kids’ emotional development. Dogs in particular are sensitive to their owner’s moods and emotions.
Moreover, animals make socializing easier for kids who find it stressful. One study examined the behavior of children with autism in a classroom with a pet guinea pig. Researchers found that these children were more social with their peers than autistic kids without classroom pets. In addition, they smiled and laughed more, and showed fewer signs of stress.
Equine-Assisted Therapy also helps teens build relationship skills. As a result, teens create meaningful and abiding relationships with their horses. Subsequently, the confidence and skills they develop transfer to relationships with family and friends. This is an essential step in growth and recovery.
Pets Support Social Connection
Another result of pets and mental health, for teens and adults, is that pets support social connection. They relieve social anxiety because they provide a common topic to talk about. Hence, pets counteract social isolation.
For example, walking a dog often leads to conversations with other dog owners. As a result, dog owners tend to be more socially connected and less isolated.
Therefore, their mental health improves. That’s because people who have more social relationships and friendships tend to be mentally healthier. The benefits of social connection include
- Better self-esteem
- Lower rates of anxiety and depression
- Happier, more optimistic outlook
- Stronger emotional regulation skills
- Improved cognitive function
- More empathy and feelings of trust toward others.
Last But Not Least … Pets Give Us Unconditional Love
Dogs and cats love their owners unconditionally. For example, pets don’t care how teens did on a test. Moreover, they don’t judge teens on their social skills or athletic ability. They are simply happy to see their owners. And they want to spend time with them, 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 research on pets and mental health is clear. Therefore, people might want to learn how to ask a doctor for an emotional support animal.
In addition, teens that love animals might enjoy working at an animal shelter or at a riding stable. And families who don’t have pets can go to their local humane society and bring home a new member of the family.
Images courtesy of unsplash
BMC Psychiatry. 2016 Dec 9;16(1):409.
Prev Chronic Dis. 2015;12:150204.
BMC Psychiatry. 2018;18(1).
PLoS One. 2013;8(2):e57010.
Anxiety Stress & Coping. 16(4):387–395.
J Pers Social Psych. 2011;101(6):1239–1252.
Front Psychol. 2012;3:234.
Psychosom Med. 2002 Sep-Oct;64(5):727-39.