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How Having a Pet Can Help Your Mental Health

How Having a Pet Can Help Your Mental Health

In addition to keeping you physically active, there are emotional and social benefits to pet ownership.

Pets play an important role in so many people’s day-to-day lives, keeping them safe, happy and healthy. Service animals assist people who have disabilities perform daily tasks and can alert them to a medical emergency. Emotional support animals also provide companionship to those who have mental health issues.

But did you know that pets can help lift just about anyone’s spirts?

Pet parents feel pretty strongly about the benefits their animals offer. In a survey of pet owners conducted by the Human Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI) and Cohen Research Group, 74 percent of respondents reported mental health improvements related to pet ownership, and 75 percent reported improvements in a friend or family member’s mental health.

“Having an animal that loves you unconditionally really fulfills a need that all people have,” says Christopher Rogers, MD, a psychiatrist and Medical Director of Child & Adolescent Services at the Medical Center of Aurora in Colorado.  

“Having a pet also provides purpose,” adds Dr. Rogers. “Knowing that not only do you get love from the pet, but that the pet relies on you—it gives you a real sense of importance.”

Pets can help people with mental health conditions
For many people, being close to a furry friend can offer therapeutic benefits. In fact, research suggests that bonding with a pet may increase levels of oxytocin, a “feel good” hormone, in the body. Pet ownership has also been shown to have a positive impact on those with certain conditions.

Depression: Having a pet can help people with depression and anxiety combat feelings of loneliness and social isolation. “When someone is depressed or anxious, it’s really hard to get out there and socialize, and the more someone isolates themselves, the more one feels unimportant and has a harder time not isolating themselves,” explains Rogers. “But you don’t really get to ignore a pet. They demand your attention, which can help break that cycle.”

The social benefits of pet ownership can be especially helpful for seniors. “These people don’t have as many social contacts, so the ability to form a relationship with a pet is incredibly beneficial,” adds Rogers.

What’s more, having a dog means you need to take them out for regular walks, which helps you get exercise. Exercise, in turn, helps boost levels of endorphins—another type of “feel good” hormone that may help reduce the symptoms of depression.

ADHD: Pet ownership can help teach children who have attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) about responsibility. Caring for a pet requires time management, planning, structure and scheduling—whether it’s feeding them at certain times each day, taking them out for regular walks, or bathing them. “It gives people with ADHD a certain regimented, scripted pattern,” says Rogers. “Working with a pet can help them transition those skills to other aspects of their lives.”

Having a pet can also teach empathy—something children with ADHD often struggle with—as well as lower kids’ stress levels, calm them down, and provide an outlet for excess energy. “If you have a 7-year-old with boundless energy, it can help to get a pet—like an Australian Cattle dog—that can run your kid ragged,” says Rogers. “That can be beneficial to both the child’s and parent’s mental health.”

Just remember that getting a pet should always be a family project. Children younger than age 10 are unlikely to be able to care for a dog or cat on their own, and even older children will need a parent’s guidance and modeling to learn proper care. A parent may need to step in if a child falls behind in their duties.

Autism: Research shows that children who have autism can develop strong bonds with family pets and benefit from the unconditional love and companionship pets provide. What’s more, having a pet helps promote social skills in children with autism. It may even help improve sensory issues.

Of course, choosing a pet for your child with autism requires care. Pets have personalities, too, so it’s important to find the right match. A large dog that barks a lot, for example, may not be a good fit for a child who is sensitive to noise.

“I’m also a huge fan of equine therapy,” adds Rogers, of the benefits of interacting with horses in a controlled setting. “There’s something really magical when kids who have autism work with these wise, intelligent, peaceful animals. It teaches social reciprocity and promotes an emotional connection with the animal that can hopefully be transferred to other relationships in their lives.”

Alzheimer's disease: For people who have Alzheimer’s disease, interacting with a pet can help reduce associated symptoms like anxiety, agitation, irritability, depression, and loneliness. Exposure to pets can also help draw these people out and help them become more interactive, while reducing behavioral issues.

It’s worth noting, however, that for people with Alzheimer’s specifically, there’s a difference between owning a pet and having access to one. “Bringing therapy dogs or emotional support animals into assisted living facilities and giving people with Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and other forms of dementia access to empathetic, caring animals is very beneficial,” says Rogers.

When it comes to owning a pet, it’s important to create a plan to make sure the pets’ needs are taken care of as the individual’s illness progresses, Rogers adds. Memory issues associated with Alzheimer’s, for example, may necessitate that a caregiver step in to handle responsibilities like feeding the pet and maintaining grooming and veterinary care.

What to consider before you bring a pet home
Be sure you’re up for the challenge before you take on pet ownership. “Owning a pet is hard work and stressful sometimes, and it could be detrimental if you’re not really prepared to care for an animal,” says Rogers. “Don’t make an impulsive decision. It’s important to do your research before you bring a pet home.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that prospective pet owners ask themselves some key questions, including:

  • How long will the animal live and how large will it grow?
  • How much will veterinary care and food cost?
  • How much room does the animal need to be happy and healthy?
  • Do I have the time, energy and stamina required to care for the pet?

Take the time to find the right fit for you and your family. “Be sure to pick an animal that suits your temperament,” says Rogers. “A Chihuahua is a good match if you want to put it in your purse and take it everywhere you go, which can be reassuring for someone with a social anxiety disorder. But you don’t want to take a Newfoundland to the cafe.”

Once you find the right pet for you, developing that relationship can be a very positive, rewarding experience, says Rogers. “I tell people all the time that if I could put the feeling one gets from owning a dog or cat or another loving animal into a pill, I would prescribe it all the time.” 

Medically reviewed in June 2019.

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