The Mental Health Benefits of Having a Pet
Pet owners and researchers agree, pets provide their owners with several mental health benefits. From alleviating loneliness to reducing feelings of anxiety to boosting feel-good chemicals in the brain, pets help people feel less stressed and lead happier lives.
The use of animals, from dogs and cats to animals as large as horses, in therapy situations is becoming more prevalent. Psychologists have learned that children are better able to cope with challenges and deal with stress when around animals. Furthermore, older adults lead mentally healthier lives when a pet is in the home, with lower chances of dementia developing and less chance of depression and suicide.
Then there are the service dogs that help veterans with PTSD and the emotional support animals for people suffering from anxiety disorders.
But why do pets help people with their emotional health? Why, for instance, did cat owners in a 2015 Australian study show indicators of better psychological health than non-pet owners?
And why did kids with autism spectrum disorder demonstrate more social behavior and less negative affect in the presence of animals compared to toys?
Is it simply having the company? Or does it go deeper?
Below we look at some of the ways (and whys) pets benefit the mental health of the people they live with.
(We did not include the physical health benefits of owning a pet, like lower blood pressure, despite the fact that feeling better physically can also help people feel better emotionally.)
One of the greatest mental health benefits pets provide is companionship. As simple as it sounds, having a friendly face and loving companion around is the best way to ward off the negative effects of loneliness.
According to the CDC, loneliness in adults aged 50 or older can lead to a 50% increased risk of dementia and is associated with higher rates of depression, anxiety and suicide. (Loneliness is also linked to many physical health problems including several diseases, heart attacks and strokes.)
Older adults aren’t the only people prone to loneliness. It’s also a problem for many kids. But pets can help. One study found that Scottish children, ages 11 to 15, who had strong bonds with their cats felt less sad and lonely.
Having a pet that depends on you for their well-being doesn’t only reduce feelings of loneliness. In an Australian study of 199 patients with mental health conditions ranging from depression to PTSD, 94% reported a “reduction of anxiety” after petting a dog.
Some pets go beyond offering simple physical companionship. Many pets, particularly dogs, are attuned to their owner’s feelings and will try to cheer them up or comfort them if they detect they are sad.
Dogs may bump your leg and wag their tail to get you to smile. Small dogs known for their clownish behavior may even do a little dance. Sensitive cats will try to curl up in your lap, their way of giving you a hug.
Pets can also help spark human connections between their owners and others. Taking a dog for a walk, for instance, can lead to a conversation with a stranger who wants to know about the dog. Dog parks are well-known for the social interactions they lead to with owners bonding over their shared puppy love. Even trips to the pet store can lead to conversations a normally socially-isolated person might never otherwise have the opportunity to have.
Chemical Mood Boosters
Beyond the companionship they provide, pets (particularly dogs) are tied to the release of feel-good chemicals in the human brain. From oxytocin to dopamine and endorphins, spending time and interacting with your pets can trigger your body to release chemicals that physically make you feel happier and reduce stress.
Even something as simple as staring into your dog’s eyes can make you feel better, thanks to the higher levels of oxytocin released after a five-minute or longer gaze. (Oxytocin slows down the heart rate, eases blood pressure and inhibits the production of stress hormones.)
In a South African study, researchers had similar results when they had people pet and speak to their dogs. But they also found that the levels of beta endorphins and dopamine in the people interacting with their dogs increased as well.
Endorphins, by the way, are also released after exercise, which is why exercise is linked to a reduction in anxiety, depression and negative moods. Dog owners who go for regular walks with their pups benefit from the increase in endorphins that come from walking and the time they spend with their dog.
Similar results were had by scientists at the University of Missouri who found that petting a dog also caused a spike in participants’ serotonin levels. (Serotonin is the neurotransmitter that most antidepressants work to elevate.)
And, to be clear, it’s not just dogs that can trigger these changes in people. Petting rabbits and turtles has been shown to reduce the levels of anxiety in people as well.