"A pet is the only thing on earth that loves you more than you love yourself."
Pets. It’s just a small word, but it carries a plethora of emotions & memories for so many pet parents around the world. We enjoy their companionship and going for walks, playing with them and even talking and singing to them. It's no secret that pets can contribute to your happiness. But a pet is not just a companion, numerous studies have shown that they’re good for our mental health as well.
Studies have shown that pets reduce stress, anxiety and depression; ease loneliness; encourage exercise and improve your overall health. For example, people with pets tend to have lower blood pressure and are less likely to develop heart disease. Just playing with a pet has been shown to raise levels of the feel-good brain chemicals oxytocin and dopamine, creating positive feelings and bonding for both the person and their pet.
Why are pets the best companions for us?
Looking after a living being with specific needs, someone who is totally dependent on you for so many things can help bring purpose to daily life, especially for pet owners living alone during the coronavirus pandemic. Pets are also able to interpret communicative signals from their owners and can tell when something is wrong, often adapting their behaviour to fit in with their owner, which in some instances can mean pets help reduce stress.
A 2016 study at the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom conducted a study where participants had been diagnosed with severe mental illnesses, such as Depression, Schizophrenia, Bipolar Disorder, or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. They were studied & monitored for a period of one month with their pets & therapy dogs. The study concluded that half of the participants said that pets helped them manage their illness and everyday life. Having those animals around also gave them a strong sense of identity, self-worth, and meaning.
This blog encompasses the various benefits of having a pet; more importantly, physical benefits of living with a furry companion has been well documented and varies from improved cardiovascular health and increased physical activity to lower cholesterol and decreased blood pressure.
Pets relieve stress
The first research on pets and mental health was published 30 years ago, in the early 90s. The two psychologists who conducted this research found that humans, when exposed regularly to pets had evident improvements in their mental & physical health. Also,
- Their blood pressure went down
- Their heart rate slowed
- Their breathing became more regular
- Muscle tension relaxed.
These are all signs of reduced stress.
Another experiment was conducted with a group that is usually surrounded with stress – students. When the University of British Columbia brought in therapy dogs, providing 246 students with a chance to pet and cuddle during lectures & projects, the results were impressive. Students who were surveyed both before and after engaging with these dogs reported a significant decrease in their stress level, along with increased happiness and a higher energy level.
“The results were remarkable. We found that, even 10 hours later, students reported slightly less negative emotion, felt more supported, and less stressed, compared to students who did not take part in the therapy dog session.”
Pets lead us to nature
As pet owners, we are outside walking our dogs every day or playing with our cats everyday. But having a pet also motivates us to get into green spaces — a walk in the park, along a beach, or into the woods. And thanks to our pets, the lure into nature brings us significant benefits.
In recent years, research has shown that nature can provide positive impacts by offering stress relief, boosting your mood, increasing social interaction, encouraging physical activity, soothing pain, and enhancing your creativity. Even in an urban environment, you’ll reap the benefits. Studies suggest that being in any green space — whether it’s a small park or an endless coastline — will boost your mental health.
Pets promote socialization
Feeling connected to people plays an important role in your mental wellbeing. Humans are social creatures, who thrive on regular social interactions. When out for a walk with your pet, and given the opportunity, how many times has your pet started sniffing or socialising with another pet & vice versa? Leading to random, positive conversations? Walking your pet is not only a great way to explore your community, but also a chance to chat up your neighbours and nearby pet lovers.
In a study of more than 800 people over 50 years of age, those who walked a dog at least four times per week were more likely to report feeling a strong sense of community, compared to people who didn’t own a dog, lending itself to healthy aging.
In another study, those who had a pet received more smiles and had more conversations with people passing by than those without one. This is significant because able-bodied people often exhibit uncomfortable behaviors — such as gaze avoidance, greater personal distance, and briefer social interactions — making pets a factor toward encouraging friendlier exchanges.
Pets help with loneliness and depression
We may be ever more connected on social media, but in these times of physical disconnection, loneliness is becoming a health epidemic. But research shows that among the benefits of pet ownership is a sense of companionship and social support that can lead to less loneliness. Pet owners have a lower rate of depression, and studies also show that they suffer fewer symptoms of depression when there is a pet at home.
“It comes down to a pet’s loyalty and devotion. There is a bond and companionship that makes a big difference in mental health. The calming presence and the social bond that pets bring can be very powerful. Animals give something to focus on instead of the negative thoughts a depressed person is prone to have. When a pet pays attention to you, they're giving you unconditional love and acceptance." - Gary Christenson, University of Minnesota.
Pets teach us empathy
We’re growing into an increasingly apathetic society. Which is why adults and kids need the best teachers around – their pets.
Since dogs & cats share their natural environment with us, our emotional vocalizations are likely to be of relevance to them,” - Annika Huber, University of Vienna.
Pets provide stability, routine and a sense of purpose
Healthy routines are great for your mental health. Having a routine that cares for your dog’s health too, can provide stability and a sense of purpose. Pets rely on you to look after them, to keep them healthy and strong. Even though cats, in this regard, can take care of themselves pretty well, they need to be fed, groomed, taken on regular walks and of course shown a lot of love! This accountability can do wonders for your mental wellbeing.
Pets encourage physical activity
Being a pet parent enables you to engage in daily physical activity. Their cute, pleading stare to go and explore the great outdoors is hard to ignore, and shouldn’t be, especially when exercise is good for your own wellbeing. Being active for just 30 minutes a day, not only benefits your own physical health, but your mental health, too. Physical activity releases positive hormones like Dopamine & Endorphins that can improve your mood and increase your happiness. Exercise also increases the blood-flow to your brain, which can improve your memory, help you think more clearly and protect against brain disease.
Pets Increase Our Sense of Self-Esteem and Well-Being
“When my father was dying of cancer, it was my pet cat, Ginger, who brought me the most comfort. Every morning before visiting my father at the hospital, she and I walked to our secret place - a hidden, rocky perch in a nearby park from where we could look out over the water — and just sat. I stared in thought, sometimes crying, other times frustrated, and Ginger got close enough to my body so I knew she was there to support me. She waited for my cues, watching my every move.”
In a recent survey by Miami University, 200+ people answered questions about their well-being, personality type, and attachment style. It was observed that pet owners were happier, healthier, and better adjusted than non-owners. IN addition, the studies showed that pet owners had improved well-being in various areas, including:
- Better self-esteem
- More physically fit
- Less lonely
- More conscientious and less preoccupied
- More extroverted
- Less fearful.
“When I was battling depression, it felt like I was at the bottom of a pit; I was suicidal. The thing that made me stop was wondering what my dog would do if I wasn’t around. That was the first thing I thought of … I can’t leave because my dog needs me.” – Ankit* (name changed)
Cats & Dogs embody “living in the moment”
Pets live in the moment. In other words, they don’t worry about what happened yesterday or what will happen tomorrow. As a result, pets can help people become more mindful. Mindfulness is the psychological process of bringing one’s attention to the present moment.
“Perhaps one of the greatest psychological benefits of interacting with a dog is the opportunity it provides to be more mindful — to purposely focus your attention on the present moment,” reads an article from Harvard Medical School.