How can having a pet help someone who has a mental illness?

UCLA Health People Animal Connection (PAC) Program
Alternative & Complementary Medicine Specialist

Pets can be very beneficial for someone with a mental illness. Autism service dogs, for example, are trained to provide comfort and companionship to people with autism. This can help minimize emotional outbursts. And because interacting with a pet increases a person’s oxytocin level, and oxytocin contributes to reinforcing social groups and bonding, someone with a mental illness who has a pet is more likely to have better-socialized behavior.

Dr. Dawn Marcus

People with serious mental illness have an extra burden, making everyday tasks more challenging. In an interesting study published in the American Journal of Occupational Therapy, Drs. Zimolag and Krupa from Queen’s University in Ontario reported on the impact of pet ownership among adults with serious mental illness. The most common reasons cited for not owning a pet were cost, living in a place that didn’t permit pets, or not having room for a pet. In their sample, pet owners were more socially integrated in the community and participated in more clinically meaningful activities compared with non-pet owners. One in five pet owners was employed compared with less than one in 10 non-pet owners.

Over half of the participants in this study listed the same reasons for having a pet that most people cite: companionship, stress relief, social support, sense of purpose, helping to establish a routine, and exercise. Interestingly, three out of every five people reported having a pet because it improved their mental health!

So remember, many people find pets to be therapeutic, including those with serious mental illness.

Raychelle C. Lohmann, MS, LPC
Psychology Specialist
Research has consistently shown that owning a pet is good for a person’s emotional well-being. While certainly professional counseling and medication may be what the doctor ordered, a four-legged companion could also help improve your mental health. Here are some perks of pet ownership: Pets help build social relationships. They are good listeners. Using a pet as a sounding board is a great way to process and put into words thoughts and emotions that may otherwise get bottled up. Petting a pet helps melt away stress and anxiety. Playing with a pet can increase levels of oxytocin, a stress-reducing hormone, and decrease levels of the stress hormone cortisol. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health, having a pet is associated with a decrease in blood pressure, cholesterol and triglyceride levels, all of which reduce the risk for having a heart attack. So, while they’re stealing your heart, they may also be protecting it. Paws down, pets are good companions and can help people cope with mental and emotional problems.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.