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Mental Health Benefits of Owning a Pet

Mar 22, 2021
Lady and her dog with the sunset

The past decade has redefined how people look at mental health. From children to adults, this focus on mental wellness has become a key factor in how we manage our lives. Though recent years have made it mainstream, with experts in every field trying to gain insight into the mind, the concept is far from new. In fact, research on the correlation between pets and mental health goes back thirty years or more.

In the 90s, psychologist Alan Beck and psychiatrist Aaron Katcher carried out a study to explore the direct effect of petting a dog on the human body. Study participants showed clear signs of decreased stress; their muscles relaxed, blood pressure lowered, breathing improved, and heart rate slowed.

Since then, researchers have gained a lot of insight into the therapeutic benefits of owning a pet. For this reason, we have pulled together 10 of the top benefits to help you decide if owning a pet may help you improve your mental wellbeing. 

Elderly lady holding her dog

1. Pet therapy speeds up mental illness recovery

Animal-assisted therapy programs use horses, dogs, cats, rabbits, hamsters, and even fish to help individuals struggling with emotional and mental distress. These strategies are based on the findings from research studies on the medical effects of having a pet on people with existing mental health concerns.

In these studies, pets allowed participants to overcome their emotional turmoil by giving them something outside of themselves to devote their energies toward. Being occupied on a day-to-day basis shifted their mental focus away from themselves while helping them gain perspective.

In a 2016 study conducted by the University of Manchester, researchers interviewed 54 participants suffering from depression, schizophrenia, BPD, and post-traumatic stress disorder. By the end of the survey results showed that 50 per cent of participants claimed their pets helped them cope on a daily basis and manage their conditions. On the one hand, the pets brought out positive emotions in pet owners like stronger feelings of identity, security, self-worth, and control and on the other, they distracted participants from symptoms like internalization, self-harm, and suicidal thought patterns.

For many people struggling with depression, pets provide a level of unconditional love and support they aren’t getting from friends and family. A participant in the study stated that when they got stuck in a mental loop of suicidal thoughts, part of what helped them breakthrough was the thought that their rabbits needed them. That feeling of being essential in another living creature’s life is a strong motivator for recovery.

Lady showering her dog

2. Looking after a pet helps you develop positive habits

Often people’s mental health impacts their ability to take care of themselves. For example, a person suffering from depression may find it impossible to gather the energy to go for a run, much less prepare meals or tend to the laundry. Despite wanting to exercise because they know it will help them, their mind is working against them. Part of the reason pets are so effective in strengthening the mind is because they push the focus away from ourselves.

When you own a dog, you feel a responsibility towards them so you will take them to the park even on days you don’t want to. You may not want to get out of bed in the morning, but you will do it if you need to feed your cats and then you’re twice as likely to feed yourself, too. Pet parents quickly realize the importance of having a routine with daily exercise and regular meal times, which are things people with mental illnesses struggle to maintain.

As a result, you start developing a routine that gives your body the benefits of exercise and regular meals. Pets push you into the world and force you to interact with nature in a productive manner. No matter how depressed or anxious you are, if you’re a pet parent, you need to wake up, get out of bed, feed, socialise with, and exercise your pets.

Child sitting down with a cat on her lap

3. Pets help children avoid anxiety

A study conducted by the CDC explores the benefits of owning a pet on children. All 643 children had similar BMIs, daily exercise levels, and computer usage, but around 50 per cent of them also had dogs. All of the participants were screened for anxiety. When compared, results showed that 21 per cent of the children without dogs had anxiety troubles while only 12 per cent of the participants with dogs had anxiety.

The researchers concluded that the presence of dogs in the home clearly had a positive impact on the mental health of the children. This is one of many studies that suggest a direct correlation between pets and children’s wellness. Other studies link pet presence to independence in children, specifically in reducing separation anxiety. For working parents, having a pet around makes it easier for children to cope in their absence by giving them a sense of security.

When children grow up with the constant love and affection of a pet, they are more likely to develop a positive self-image. This emotional attachment teaches them to care for the feelings of others and results in a stronger ability to form healthy bonds and relationships as teens and adults.

Many children talk to their pets, and that gives them a sounding board while they develop thought patterns. Similarly, the process of teaching their pet a trick can stimulate a child’s mind.

Child cuddling a German Shepherd

4. Pets help children with disabilities develop coping mechanisms

The benefits of owning a pet can also be preventative. For example, studies show that pets can calm aggression and hyperactivity in children. However, parents need to take care and spend time teaching their child how to safely interact with the pet initially. Once both the pet and the child are trained, they can be left unsupervised.

Experts specifically recommend pet ownership for children with ADHD. The process of creating and sticking to a schedule for playing, bathing and feeding their pet can help a child develop healthy coping mechanisms. Additionally, playing with dogs or cats is a great way to work off excess energy. That way they’re tired and relaxed for later in the day and can go to sleep at night.

It also does wonders for their psyche. Parents often struggle to get children with ADHD to listen to and follow instructions when they lose focus. As such, the child may get used to being reprimanded, which will negatively affect their self-image. Pets offer a form of constant support that gives children attention without criticism and helps them develop a strong sense of self and gain confidence.

Similarly, children with autism struggle with sensory issues. As part of the development of coping mechanisms, professionals often use sensory integration activities. Pets like dogs and horses calm children while easing them into feeling textures against their skin or smells and sounds. While research into animal-assisted therapies is ongoing, some studies claim they improve sociability and reduce sensory sensitivity in people with autism.

Lady and her dog

5. Owning a pet improves sense of self-worth

In a 2016 study researchers explored the benefits of owning a pet for the elderly using five crickets in a cage as the catalyst in a controlled trial. Insects were used because they’re relatively cheap and don’t take up much space. And the results show that the positive health benefits are not from owning a specific pet like a dog or a cat but in the process of taking care of the pet.

Forty-six groups of elderly citizens above the age of 65 were given five crickets in a cage, with food for eight weeks, whereas 48 groups were not. They conducted detailed psychometric tests before and after the experiment. The results showed that the groups with the insects showed a decrease in loneliness, anxiety and depression at the end of eight weeks.

Why? Because caring for another living thing feels good and increases your sense of self-worth. When you feel better about yourself, that emotion automatically translates into other positive emotions.

Cavalier King Charles Spaniel resting on the sofa with their owner

6. Pet's help lower stress and anxiety

Sensory stress relief is the feeling you get when you pet a dog or stroke a cat. The smooth touch and repetitive motion automatically give you a sense of calm. Research shows that petting and playing with animals results in the release of oxytocin, serotonin and dopamine. These are the chemicals your body releases which make you happy and relaxed.

You’ll start noticing the effects within five minutes of interaction. That’s why pets are extremely helpful with people who struggle with anxiety. Just being around a friendly animal can do wonders for your mental health. Additionally, research shows when you take a break in the middle of a busy day to spend a few minutes playing with your dog, your body’s cortisol levels also decrease. Cortisol is the stress chemical that makes you jittery and nervous.

These hormone changes are the reason animal-assisted therapy is so highly recommended. There are direct medical benefits of owning a pet. If you’re worried about your health, you should seriously consider getting a pet because the simple act of stroking them can reduce your blood pressure.

Man high fiving his dog

7. Owning a pet supports emotional growth

A study published by the American Psychology Association uses three experiments to explore the impacts of pet ownership on people’s mental health. Psychologists at Miami University and Saint Louis University interviewed 217 people on a range of factors. These included general well-being, personality characteristics, sociability, and attachment style.

The results showed that not only were pet owners better adjusted; they were also more confident, healthy and focused. Comparatively, the pet owners were more outgoing and had higher self-esteem.

The second experiment explored the emotional attachment levels of 56 participants towards their dogs. Results showed that the pet owners were as close to their dogs as they were the people in their lives. However, there was no evidence to suggest that pet ownership was being used as a replacement for human interaction. They were thus proving that there is no scientific backing to the myth that people rely on pets when their human support system is weak. Quite the opposite, pet owners appear to be more interactive and better suited to connecting with other people.

Emotional growth in children

Research results indicate that children who have strong emotional bonds with animals are more likely to develop healthy relationships with other people. Dogs are specifically good at this because they pick up human cues, respond to direct commands and are sensitive to human emotions. So, a dog will pick up on whether a child is happy or sad and respond accordingly.

A study using guinea pigs in a primary school classroom
explored emotional growth in students by examining the behaviour of children with autism. In the classrooms with pet guinea pigs, children became more socially interactive. The presence of a common pet made it easier for the introverted students to socialize. Overall, the children in these classrooms talked to their friends and laughed more.

This concept of animal-based therapy extends across all social groups and ages. From children and teenagers to adults and the elderly, there is a clear connection between pets and mental health. The process of caring for animal results in emotional growth that transfers to other relationships, with family and friends. For people who struggle with forming bonds, this can serve as an important steppingstone of the road to growth and recovery.

Lady carrying her cat

8. Have a pet encourages social connection

In addition to mental growth, which leads to better social skills, owning a pet also provides opportunities for building those connections on a daily basis. For example, pet owners often bond over stories of their pets. You can join groups and chatrooms online to discuss and share stories of your pet with other animal lovers and you’ll start new friendships in parks, clubs, stores, or even at the vet or on a walk around the block.

This in no way means that you should get a pet just so you can meet people. On the contrary, it is simply an added benefit of the genuine love and affection pet parents feel for their animals.

When it comes to strengthening mental health, the bonds you form with other pet owners will give you a feeling of inclusivity that’s hard to come by in other settings.

Owning a pet also gives you a more optimistic approach in life. After all, it’s hard to stay sad when faced with the sheer joy of a dog playing in the park. People with pets have lower rates of anxiety and depression and greater empathy for others.

Dog running with its owner

9. Pet's can provide long term health improvement

Many people struggle with loneliness on a daily basis. Feeling isolated can make it hard to complete simple tasks and is the most common factor in triggering depression and anxiety. With a pet, you'll never feel alone and that constant companionship will do wonders for your health, especially if you live by yourself.

For many pet owners, the best part of their day is when they come home from a long day at work to the sight of an ecstatic dog or a cuddly cat. It also means you never get lost in your own head and no matter what you're going through your pet will demand attention, so you don't end up spending all your time worrying about your problems.

Plus, the medical benefits that come from caring for a pet add up over time. When you're less stressed and anxious, your improved mental health will push you to strive for more. Similarly, pets help reduce blood pressure and heart disease, so you're healthier and more ready to take on life. The happiness you'll receive from being a pet parent will overflow into the other parts of your life, giving you greater success in both the professional and personal arenas.

A dog licking their owner's face

10. Pet's improve mental health of teens

Teenagers are the group that is most at risk for mental health illnesses like anxiety and depression. These are their most challenging years at school as they work to compete academically and personally. On the one hand, they face the burden of getting into the best college and figuring out their path in life. On the other hand, they are being bombarded with images of their peers at their best, stunning influencers, and 12-year-old billionaire YouTubers.

Taking care of a pet is often a welcome distraction for teenagers. Dogs will pull them away from their troubles and their screens, sometimes forcefully when they demand attention. At a time in their lives where most struggle to confide in their parents or even their friends, pets serve as silent, loving confidants. That constant well of affection can often ease anxiety and build confidence when things get hard.

Man and his dog lying down

Should you get a pet?

There are endless benefits to owning a pet, both mentally and physically. But, whether or not you choose to welcome a pet into your home is ultimately your decision because, despite all the value they bring, caring for a pet is a huge responsibility. And once you take the leap and become an owner, you have to commit to giving them the time and attention they need, even when you don’t feel like giving it.

A relationship with a pet goes both ways. Any love, care, and affection you put into the relationship are reciprocated tenfold. But you must make sure you’re ready to take that final step into becoming a pet parent.

Always remember that there are plenty of people you can talk to if you struggle with looking after your pet. From friends and family to your veterinary clinic or experienced pet owners in social media groups, there is always someone you can turn to for help.