Even when you’re having a bad day, pets seem to have an uncanny ability to make you smile. Can the advantages of owning a pet go beyond that and positively impact your overall mental health? Research says yes.
Pets reduce loneliness: We live in a world where we are more connected than ever – on social media. But we’re physically very disconnected. Having a pet provides a bond and constant companionship that helps reduce feelings of isolation and loneliness. In addition, pets make great listeners and give you someone to chat with without any judgement.
Pets give us purpose: The need to care for another living being often gives us a reason to wake up in the morning. This can be especially important for the elderly who live alone or in a nursing home. Waking up to feed a cat or small bird can provide a sense of purpose in life. The act of care taking has remarkable mental health benefits – it is even true for pets that do not interact much with their caretakers, such as turtles, crickets or fish.
Pets promote socialization: Having social support gives a sense of well-being and belonging. Having a dog encourages you to go outside, enjoy nature and interact with your neighbors. Research shows that people who walk their dog are more likely to report feeling a strong sense of community compared to people who did not own a dog.
Pets reduce depression: Feeling helpless, empty or overwhelmed with persistent sadness? Research shows that pet owners tend to have lower rates of depression. Pets give you something else to focus on other than those nagging negative thoughts. They provide distraction from symptoms of mental health disorders and help people better manage their emotions. Additionally, they provide unconditional love and acceptance, which often improve mood and overall well-being.
Pets reduce anxiety: Pets are great at sensing emotion and often seek people out when they are feeling distressed. Many people with anxiety report feeling calmer after simply petting an animal. Science has proven that for people with acute stress or anxiety, having a pet can reduce physical symptoms of stress (such as tachycardia, hypertension, sweating), and also raise our levels of serotonin and dopamine. One interesting study by the CDC, even showed that having a dog may protect children from feelings of stress and anxiety and thus have a better chance of becoming happy, healthy teenagers.
Improve physical health: Pets not only improve our mental health, but they also positively impact our physical health. One of the earliest research studies regarding pets and human health showed that when people pet friendly dogs, their blood pressure goes down, heart rate slows, breathing becomes regular and muscle tension relaxes (all big signs of reduced stress and anxiety).
Although pets are great for mental health, they are not for everyone. It is important to determine what you can provide to an animal before bringing them into your home. Think about the long term and what each pet’s requirements will be and the impact that will have on your life and your routine. For example, people with extreme social anxiety may be triggered by the thought of having to walk a dog around the neighborhood or visit a local dog park. They may benefit more from a cat, bird or plant that can be cared for at home. Make the right decision for you and the animal. If you do not have ability to own a pet, consider volunteering at your local animal shelter!