Pets help us in many ways and bring so much joy into our lives. They entertain and comfort us and are always there no matter what. But our pets provide us with more than companionship. Our bond with them can play an essential role in our physical and mental health.
Recent studies exploring the benefits of human and pet interaction for mental health have revealed new improvements for managing mental health, stress, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and depression. A 2016 study conducted by the Department of Veteran Affairs, for instance, revealed that service dogs can be an effective complementary treatment for veterans, where more than 30% experienced PTSD. Understanding the health benefits of the human-pet bond might help to see an increase in pet-friendly hospitals, nursing homes, and workplaces.
Could a pet be just what the doctor ordered for you?
Here are five ways pets can help improve mental health.
Positive Physiological Changes
Ask a pet owner if their animal helps them feel better after a stress-filled day and you’ll likely hear a resounding “yes!” Now science is increasingly supporting this gut feeling.
- A study from 2009 examining the changes in oxytocin levels in men and women, before and after human-animal interaction, shows that hormones associated with well-being, including oxytocin, cortisol, b-endorphin, phenylacetic acid, prolactin, and dopamine, are released after petting and playing with a dog.
- These hormones can slow down the heart rate and breathing, inhibit stress hormones, and quiet blood pressure. Oxytocin, in particular, can create a sense of calm, focus, and comfort. Cortisol strengthens the immune system while easing tension and anxiety.
Whether it’s chatting with random folks at the dog park as Fido runs around in the pack or stopping on the street to let your dog be pet by a passing child, it’s not hard to suspect pets—even cats—increase people’s social opportunities.
- In a scientific study on pet ownership and human health, psychologist June Mc Nicholas found pets can be excellent support for socially isolated people. Those who regularly walk their dog can quickly strike up a conversation with others, which may be the only social contact an isolated person has that day.
- Able-bodied people can be socially awkward with those who have disabilities; a dog can break down barriers and allow a more natural and comfortable interaction.
- Even cat owners can reap social benefits. Something as simple as chatting with another cat food buyer in the supermarket aisle can add a moment of friendliness and interaction that might not otherwise have occurred.
Getting in daily exercise is a suggestion from just about every doctor. Putting that theory into reality, though, can be a challenge. Add a dog or a horse to your life, though, and suddenly you have a built-in exercise buddy.
- A study by Dr. Graham Durcan of the Centre for Mental Health in the U.K. found that physical exercise with therapy dogs helped alleviate anxiety, stress, loneliness, and depression for prison inmates. Daily walks outdoors with a dog boost physical as well as emotional health—the proverbial win-win.
- One prisoner from the evaluation told the interviewer he felt “better inside” and that “dogs have a magical effect on you.”
- Reviewers found that the positive feelings lasted long after the dogs had left, with one subject saying that he was on “cloud nine” for the rest of the day.
Having a pet can also help prevent mental decline in areas like problem-solving and other daily activity requirements.
- The State Hospital in South Lancashire, Scotland, runs an animal therapy center specifically to give patients the opportunity to pet and care for various animals, including rabbits, hens, chipmunks, geese, pigs, and pygmy goats. Staff at the hospital reported to The Guardian in 2020 that animal therapy helps improve empathy, problem-solving skills, engender a sense of responsibility, and rechannel aggressive thoughts.
One of the challenges of retirement can be figuring out how to fill your day. Just about any pet helps fill that void by adding instant structure to a day.
- Feeding, exercising, and caring for a pet can help to maintain a daily routine. In addition, caring for a pet can bring a sense of achievement. Human beings are creatures of habit, and routines promote overall wellness.
- According to WebMD, routines have psychological benefits that can help us face specific challenges, including addiction recovery, bipolar disorder, and loneliness. Overall, routines are critical to our health, and without a pet, many too often lose out on this essential part of life.
If you’re curious about adding a pet to your life, here are some local organizations where you can get more information.