You’ve heard pets (namely dogs) referred to as “man’s best friend.” With over 60 percent of Americans owning a pet, there’s a good chance that you or someone close to you has a dog, cat, or another animal as part of their household. Most pet owners consider their animals as bona fide members of the family. Some buy their pets birthday gifts and almost all take their pets’ needs into consideration when they schedule their days or plan trips and other events. While you might think that humans give their pets more than their pets give them, you might be surprised to find that pets can improve their owners’ mental health. Read on to find out how owning a pet can improve mental health.
#1 Pets Can Reduce Stress
Watching, playing with, and stroking pets can reduce stress. This is something that is known by professionals who work with patients in a wide variety of physical and mental health settings, which is why many facilities, including inpatient mental health programs, children’s hospitals, and nursing homes use therapy animals to help their patients relax.
There are several ways that pets can help reduce stress. One way is physical; animals can actually lower people’s blood pressures. You don’t even have to pet the animal, and it’s not only cute, fluffy pets that do the trick. Even watching fish in an aquarium can reduce your stress levels. This is one reason why some medical and dental offices have fish in their waiting rooms.
A lower stress level can help reduce overall anxiety. Signs of anxiety include:
- high blood pressure
- a fast heart rate
- other physical symptoms
Many times, the symptoms themselves cause further anxiety, so reducing them can help break the cycle.
#2 Pets Reduce Loneliness
Having a pet can provide social stimulation that can, in turn, reduce loneliness. Since loneliness is a risk factor for depression, talking to and caring for your animals can actually reduce your chances of developing depression. Pets, particularly the furry and friendly kind, can help you meet your needs for touch. This is very important if someone lives alone and might not get a lot of (or any) human touch throughout a typical day. If you are feeling lonely or depressed, try spending time with a dog or cat.
#3 Pets Give People a Purpose
When you have a pet, you have someone to care for and take responsibility for. Humans know that their pets are fully dependent on them, so caring for them gives people a sense of purpose. For people with depression and anxiety, not having anything meaningful to do can compound the problem. When a pet is expecting to be fed and walked at certain times, their human has no choice but to stick to the schedule. This incentive to get up, get going, and take care of the pet can be just what someone struggling with a mental health issue needs.
In addition to making a routine necessary, a pet gives its owner a reason to take care of him- or herself. Just as having children often makes parents want to keep themselves in the best condition possible so they’ll be around for a long time to care for the children, pet-parents tend to want to keep themselves in good condition for their furbabies. No one wants to think about what might become of their pets if something happens to them (the owner), so owning a pet can make people more interested in keeping themselves mentally and physically healthy.
#4 Pets Help You Get More Exercise
It’s well-documented that exercise can help relieve both anxiety and depression. Owning a pet, particularly a dog, can help you get more exercise. Dogs need to be walked daily. They also love to play games like fetch and frisbee. For someone who is sedentary or just not likely to get the exercise they need on their own, a dog (or an active cat or another type of pet) can be just what they need to get out and move their bodies.
An added benefit to this is that those who have pets who go outside also get more fresh air and sunshine. Spending time in nature can boost your spirits. Also, a deficiency in vitamin D, which is made by the body in response to the sun, can cause symptoms of depression. Getting out and spending time outdoors might boost vitamin D levels. (If you think you might be deficient, however, see your doctor for a blood test. Supplements are available to raise your levels to the appropriate level, but they shouldn’t be taken without the advice of a professional.)
#5 Pets Can Improve Your Social Life
For those with social anxiety, owning a pet can give you the confidence to communicate with another being. Children who are anxious about reading are sometimes referred to programs where they read to dogs. Dogs don’t care if a child stumbles over a word or reads slowly and haltingly; they just want to be talked to and loved. This is the type of social incentive that pets can provide their people.
Even for those who don’t have social anxiety, pets give them something to talk about. Just a roomful of new mothers is filled with conversations about breastfeeding, baby formula, vaccinations, diapers, sleeping, and a host of other topics that people not in this stage of life would find boring, a room filled with pet-owners might be filled with conversation topics about those pets.
- Which vet do you use?
- Is the one-year or the three-year rabies vaccine better?
- Does your dog get along with other dogs?
- How can I make my dog stop chasing my cat?
- What type of kitty litter do you like best?
The topics are endless, and those who are stumped for conversation topics on a regular day might be able to default to talking about their animals without a pause.
Owning a pet means increased responsibilities and work, but it can also improve mental health. If you are in the position to get a pet, think about which type would be best for you, then ask your local animal rescue or veterinarian for guidance in finding the perfect furry, feathered, or scaly animal to add to your family.