Research Says That Pet Ownership Benefits Our Mental Health
About two-thirds of US households have one or more pets. When we look at the mental health benefits of having pets, we can see why!
Whether people realize it consciously or not, having a domestic animal is excellent for mental health and thus great for happiness, productivity, and general well-being. Interestingly, these benefits even boil down to biology, since we have evolved with our domesticated furry partners for thousands of years!
Here’s a look at some of the pets and the science behind why pet ownership benefits our minds.
Caution: Choose Your Pet Wisely
A little word of warning: There’s no one-size-fits-all mental health solution with pets. You will need to put some of this research into a context that makes sense to you.
For example, if you have pet allergies, you should avoid an Akita or Chow Chow. If you love watching birds bathing in your yard, you will need to adopt an older indoor cat who will require enrichment indoors, or a kitten that you can train to walk on a leash so as to not harm wildlife.
Pay attention to this research from Nuwber and think about the differences between cat people and dog people and what those supposed differences mean. Can you be both? Or perhaps you’re best suited to another animal entirely? (Note that exotic pets seem really cool on social media, but they are almost never a good choice for the average pet owner).
Read on to see how pets benefit mental health, but keep in mind the right pet for you and your environment!
Even though cortisol, or “the stress hormone”, has many benefits, such as the regulation of blood pressure and sleep-wake cycle, too much of it can be a problem. And what’s astonishing is that interacting with animals has been demonstrated to reduce cortisol levels.
The human body releases cortisol in the following situations:
- Acute stress, such as in a fight or flight scenario;
- Chronic stress, such as due to working in a stressful environment;
- Traumatic stress, such as having been a victim of assault or having been involved in a natural disaster.
Higher than usual cortisol levels can show themselves in weight gain, especially in the face or abdomen, high blood pressure, and osteoporosis, among other symptoms.
One study showed that stroking a living creature — notably a rabbit and a turtle — had a stress-relieving effect. This was true even if the subjects didn’t say that they liked the animals.
Another study demonstrated that kids with autism had less anxiety when they were allowed to play with guinea pigs in the classroom. After playing with these animals, it was discovered that the kids engaged better with each other, were smiling and laughing more, and exhibited fewer signs of stress.
In another interesting study, researchers monitored two sets of kids with diabetes. Both groups had to check their glucose levels consistently.
One group, however, was asked to look after a fish, feeding it twice a day and checking and changing its water regularly. The kids in the group with a fish to care for were more likely consistent with checking their glucose levels.
This suggests that having to care for an animal helps us stay in a better routine, and therefore take better care of ourselves.
Fish as pets were also featured in this study that showed people with Alzheimer’s were more attentive and energetic, ate better, and were more likely to eat slower (hence in a healthier way) in front of aquariums containing colorful fish.
In a study of children’s reading, those who read to a dog for thirty minutes once per week had fewer behavioral problems than those who read to dog puppets. Improvements were evident in volunteering, social skills, sharing, and cooperation.
Looking after a pet is a great way to learn, practice, and appreciate compassion. Even looking after something not so cuddly, like crickets, has been shown to have positive effects on people suffering from depression.
Dogs are excellent at being in the moment. Their presence can help people feel grounded. Whether they are excited by a toy, food, or simply sitting, dogs are present. This can have a centering and calming effect on those with anxiety.
The right dog may inspire people to be more mindful rather than stressing about the future or worrying about the past. Dogs’ capacity for attention makes another person feel like the center of the universe.
According to Dr. Ann Berger, a researcher and physician at the NIH Clinical Center, animals have an innate capacity for “attention, intention, compassion, and awareness.” Dogs often know how to give unconditional love, which can be extremely healthy and helpful for people in mental distress.
Physical exercise is well-known to be good for mental health. Exercise can improve mood through the release of endorphins, weight loss, improved cardiac health, and muscle development, which can reduce pain, improve mobility, and lead to a better body image.
Having a pet that requires physical activity, such as an active dog, can result in boosting the owner’s fitness and sustaining their motivation to exercise, which is likely to have positive effects on mental health.
Now, of course increasing fitness doesn’t happen overnight, but the obligation of taking your dog out will help you become fit, and it may not even feel like exercise! If you want to increase your cardio even more, running with your dog can increase the intensity of the exercise.
We have to remember, however, that not all dogs require the same amount of exercise. A Greyhound, for example, needs surprisingly little exercise, as they are built for running very fast for a short amount of time and then sleeping most of the day. So again, we emphasize the need to research the right pet for you!
Gentle animals, such as some breeds of dogs, cats, and horses, can be great companions for lonely people.
Pets can even help people meet others. Dog owners often meet new people while out walking their dogs or going to off-leash dog parks. This can be amazing for lonely or shy people or those who have just moved to a new area.
Communities exist around pets, too, which can reduce feelings of isolation and loneliness. There are many dog walking groups, but many groups form around all sorts of pets (like aquarium or reptile enthusiasts) and may exist locally, do a search and find out!
Good news for the two-thirds of the US population that have pets: Science says that our animal friends are excellent for our mental health!
Owning a pet is a fantastic way to improve mental and physical health. Now it’s hard to imagine our lives without our four-legged friends, and they have become the center of it.
If you still don’t have a pet but desperately want to get one, don’t hesitate. You won’t regret your decision.