Human-animal relationships are extremely strong and there’s no denying that pets and mental health go hand-in-hand. According to a Harris poll from 2015, 95% of pet owners, regardless of their age, consider their animal to be a family member. Pets bring joy to children, teenagers, adults, and elders alike, and as a result, pets and mental health are inextricably linked.
Research also backs up these benefits of pets, as many scientific research cases have demonstrated the mental health benefits of keeping a dog or cat. Animals can aid in the treatment of depression, anxiety, and stress. They also provide companionship and help to alleviate loneliness, not to mention providing us with so much joy and unconditional love.
Pets & Mental Health
Thirty years ago, the first study on pets and mental health was published. The research was carried out by Purdue University psychologist Alan Beck and University of Pennsylvania psychiatrist Aaron Katcher. They examined what occurs to a person’s body when they pet a friendly dog. What they discovered was as follows:
- Heart rate slowed down
- Breathing became more regular
- Muscle tension relaxed
- Lowered blood pressure
The researchers connected these signs of reduced stress with pets in our lives having a significant impact on both our mental and physical health.
Increase in Animal-Assisted Therapy
As a result of increased scientific research, animal-assisted therapy programmes have emerged as a vital component of mental health care. Individuals who own mental health animals, such as an emotional support dog, tend to greatly benefit.
Equine therapy has been used in teen mental health programmes since the 1990s, as therapy that involves horses has been shown to help people with mental illnesses. The human-horse bond helps teenagers to talk about their feelings and problems. They accomplish this through a profound, direct and nonverbal communication experience.
Research aside, we can all find the benefits of having a pet in our homes every day. Here are 10 reasons why pets can have a positive effect on your mental health.
Pet Lover or not, Petting an Animal Lowers Cortisol
Interacting with a friendly dog lowers cortisol levels, which is a stress hormone. It also promotes the release of oxytocin, a hormone in the body that naturally relieves stress. It’s for this reason why animal-assisted therapy is so effective.
Handling or touching a pet decreases blood pressure because it is a sensory experience, which tends to lower stress levels. Research has even shown that dogs can assist hyperactive or aggressive children in calming down.
One study group of stressed-out adults was instructed to pet a rabbit, a turtle, or a toy. The toy had no reaction when touched, whereas stroking the rabbit or turtle reduced tension. Even those who were not very fond of animals were found to have reaped the benefits.
We Feel Needed By Our Pets
Doing things for the good of others seems to help reduce depression and loneliness. When you have a pet to care for, you feel more needed and wanted. The act of caring for others may be beneficial to one’s mental health as caring for another living creature provides us with a sense of meaning and purpose.
This can be true even if the pets do not have a lot of interaction with their caregivers. Elderly persons were given five bugs in a cage in a 2016 study on pets and mental health. Over the course of eight weeks, researchers tracked their emotions. They also compared them to a control group that didn’t have any pets. One group of these participants, who were given crickets, demonstrated being less depressed after eight weeks than those in the control group. Therefore, researchers concluded that caring for a living creature can produce some mental health benefits.
Pet Interaction Lowers Stress Hormones
Petting and playing with animals reduces stress-related chemicals, according to studies on pets and mental health. These advantages can be realized after only five minutes of interaction with a pet. As a result, pets can be extremely beneficial to anxiety sufferers.
Our serotonin and dopamine levels rise when we play with a dog or cat. These are hormones that help the nervous system relax and quiet down. We can also help trigger the release of these “happy hormones” by smiling and laughing at our pets’ charming behaviour.
Dogs Can Help Kids Cope With Anxiety
According to a research study by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, having a companion dog can help children cope with anxiety.
A total of 643 children took part in the research; a little more than half of them had dogs as pets. The children’s BMI (body mass index), anxiety levels, screen time, and physical activity were all measured by the researchers.
They found that the children’s BMIs, screen time, and physical activity were all similar, whether they had pets or not. Their anxiety levels, however, were not the same. In fact, a screening test for anxiety found that 21% of youngsters who did not have a pet dog were “positive” but only 12% of youngsters with dogs scored “positive” for anxiety.
Pets seem to have a demonstrable positive impact on childhood stress and anxiety, and children who grow up with pets are more likely to grow up to be happy and healthy teenagers.
Pets Increase our Self Esteem
Three trials on the benefits of pet ownership were recently done by psychologists at Miami University and Saint Louis University, with the results published by the American Psychological Association.
Pet owners were found to have enhanced well-being in a variety of categories, according to the studies:
- Better self-esteem
- More physically fit
- Less lonely
- More conscientious and less preoccupied
- More extroverted
- Reduced fear
217 people participated in the first study, which included questions about their health, personality type and attachment style. Pet owners were also happier, healthier, and more well-adjusted than those who did not own a pet.
A second study included 56 dog owners. Pet owners’ thoughts about their pets were studied by researchers and they also kept track of their happiness. One set of participants claimed that having a dog made them feel more connected, self-assured, and meaningful. As a result, these participants had a higher overall sense of well-being than the others.
The third study included 97 undergraduates with an average age of 19 years old where researchers found that having a pet can help adolescents cope with rejection. The teenagers were invited to write about a time in their lives when they felt left out. They were then given the option of writing about their favourite pet, a beloved buddy, or drawing a map of their school. In terms of overcoming feelings of rejection, writing about pets was found to be equally as beneficial as writing about a buddy.
Pets Help Build Social Connection
Another benefit of pets for teens’ and adults’ mental health is that they encourage social interaction. They can help alleviate social anxiety and isolation by providing a common topic of conversation.
Walking a dog, for example, frequently leads to interactions with other dog owners. As a result, dog owners are more socially connected and less isolated than non-dog owners.
This often leads to improved mental well-being due to the fact that humans who have more social ties and friendships are generally happier. The advantages of social interaction include the following:
- 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
Pets Support Recovery from Mental Illness
Pets are incredibly beneficial to people who are healing from severe mental illnesses. In a new meta-analysis, researchers looked at 17 academic studies from nine different medical databases in which scientists discovered evidence that having a pet can help persons with mental illnesses. By looking at how pets — cats, dogs, hamsters, finches, and even goldfish — influenced the mental health of patients with mental illnesses, it was noted that the participants’ pets assisted them in managing their emotions. Furthermore, it diverted some of their attention away from the signs and symptoms of their mental illness.
Taking care of a pet gave owners a sense of control. It also provided them with a sense of security and routine.
“I was kind of suicidal when I was so depressed,” one participant stated. “The thought of what the bunnies would do made me come to a halt. That was the first thing that came to mind… I’m unable to leave since the bunnies require my assistance.”
Dr. Helen Brooks, the study’s lead author, stated, “Pets gave a unique sort of validation through unconditional support, which they were often not receiving from other familial or social interactions.” Dr. Brooks and her colleagues came to the conclusion that having a pet is beneficial to one’s mental health and should be included in patients’ specific treatment programmes.
Pets Show us How to Live in the Present
Pets are completely absorbed in the present moment and are unconcerned about what happened the day before. They are equally unconcerned about what may occur tomorrow.
The psychological practice of bringing one’s attention to the current moment is known as mindfulness. Therefore, pets can help their owners be more present!
Pets also serve as a distraction from whatever may be bothering their owners so spending time with a pet can help us remember how to be carefree and playful.
Pets Help us Establish Healthy Routines
Pets must be cared for on a daily basis which in turn assists us in developing healthy routines and behaviours.
Physical activity is required for dog owners to routinely take them out for walks, r
uns, and hikes. As a result, dog owners are much more likely to meet their recommended daily activity levels.
Throughout the day, dogs and cats require regular feeding, so pet owners must get up and care for their animals regardless of their mood. By needing to look after them, we are also reminded to look after ourselves!
Pets Help Build our Relationship Skills
Children who are emotionally attached to their pets have an easier time forming relationships with other people throughout their lives, according to research. Dogs are sensitive to the moods and feelings of their owners, and they respond to human cues, which aids in the emotional development of children.
Animals tend to make socializing less traumatic for children. A study that looked at how children with autism behaved in a classroom with a pet guinea pig found that those youngsters were shown to be more social with their peers than autistic children who did not have classroom pets. They also showed fewer indications of tension and fear, while smiling and joking more.
Pets Give Us Unconditional Love
Dogs and cats are completely devoted to their owners. Pets are entirely unconcerned about how well someone scored on a test that day, nor do they evaluate their owners on their social or athletic abilities. This type of unconditional love is beneficial to one’s mental health as it increases the release of dopamine into the brain, which is a neurotransmitter involved in the feeling of pleasure.
At the end of every day, pets are just relieved to see their owners. No matter what, they want to spend time with them.