Plenty of studies have been done on the beneficial effects of owning a pet, and all point to physical benefits such as lowering blood pressure or strengthening your immune system.
How Pets Can Improve Our Mental Health
But did you know you can experience mental benefits as well just from interacting with your pet every day? This article looks at the psychological effects of owning a companion animal and our pets’ positive impacts on our mental outlook and emotional well-being.
The physical benefits of interacting with a pet have been well documented over the years and include;
- Improved cardiovascular health and a lower risk of death due to lower blood pressure and reduced cholesterol and triglyceride levels
- Greater resistance to allergies by being exposed to and growing up around pets
- Improved immunity to colds and other mild illnesses from exposure to the germs carried by pets
- Improved physical fitness through the need to regularly exercise your pet.
Beyond the physical benefits, studies are now revealing that pets contribute positively to our mental health at every stage of our lives. They’ve found that owning a pet can;
- Boost your mood – pets can elevate your mood and improve your mental outlook through the unconditional love, companionship and physical contact they provide. This reduces your stress hormones (cortisol) and increases your pleasure hormones (dopamine).
- Meet a need for affection – those who are lonely or recently bereaved and have few social connections can benefit from interaction with their pets. That’s because physical interaction can produce an increase in oxytocin levels in both owner and pet in a similar response to that which occurs between a mother and child.
- Develop emotional and social skills – children who grow up around pets are better at managing anxiety and typically more empathic towards others. They also have higher self-esteem and a greater sense of responsibility, developed through looking after their pets.
- Reduce loneliness and depression – having a pet around can encourage adolescents with a negative outlook on life to think more positively, empathise more with others and increase their social competence and network of friends.
- Give your life structure and purpose – pets can provide elderly people living alone with much needed social support. Being responsible for looking after a pet also gives them a sense of purpose and a reason to get up every day and adhere to a set routine.
- Increase social interaction – exercising your pet and taking them to pet-friendly places such as pet shows, parks and dog beaches gives you the opportunity to interact with other like-minded pet owners and increase your circle of friends and acquaintances. It can also be a good way to gradually reintroduce those with social phobias into normal social situations.
- Encourage self-care – because your pet is totally reliant on you to take care of them, this makes you feel needed and motivates you to take care of yourself so you are able to properly look after them.
- Lend a sympathetic ear – many pet owners talk to their pets and although they don’t understand and can’t answer back, the fact that they’re always there for you and are completely non-judgmental can provide you with a feeling of reassurance and a healthy opportunity to get things off your chest.
- Help you feel safe – feeling secure is important for good mental health and although some pets would probably lick an intruder to death, just having a pet by your side can give you a feeling that you’re safer and not on your own. Plus burglars are less likely to target a house with a dog, whatever the breed.
- Provide comfort and care – when you’re down or unwell, pets can be great caregivers, remaining by your side and seemingly sensing your illness or low mood.
- Reduce feelings of stress – playing and interacting with your pet increases your levels of serotonin and dopamine (the happiness hormones that relax the nervous system) and reduces your levels of cortisol (the stress hormone),
- Increase mindfulness – because pets live from moment to moment, they can help you to increase your own sense of mindfulness. This is the process of focusing your attention on the present moment, instead of wasting time regretting the past or worrying about the future.
Hopefully, these many benefits have encouraged you to consider adopting a pet for yourself. Remember that a pet is for life, and you should consider the financial, lifestyle, and care implications of ownership beforehand.
But if you have the space, can afford to take care of it, and have the time to give a pet all the love and attention it needs, you’ll soon be feeling better both physically and mentally and telling yourself it was the best decision you ever made.