Can a Pet Improve Your Family’s Mental Health?

You already have a lot on your plate, and if you are busy with work, kids, school, household obligations, volunteer opportunities, and various relationships in your life, getting a pet might seem like just one more obligation. After all, when you have a dog or a cat, you need to take it to the vet, spend time with it, clean up the yard or the litter box, buy food, and the list goes on and on. Did you know, however, that having a pet might improve the health, including the mental health, of you and the rest of your family? Read on to learn a few ways in which a trip to the animal shelter to adopt a four-footed friend can end up boosting your quality of life.

 

1. Pets Relieve Stress

 

If you’ve ever snuggled up with your cat or dog after a stressful day, you know how furry pals tend to just melt away the tension. The science behind this is that interacting with an animal can lower your cortisol (stress hormone) levels and raise your oxytocin (relaxation) hormones. You might have seen this in action if you’ve ever seen a therapy animal; it’s common for volunteers to bring specially trained pets into hospitals, nursing homes, and other places where people are under stress or suffer from anxiety or depression.

 

The documented cases of stress relief don’t only depend on what pet owners or those being helped by therapy pets say they feel. There are studies that show that blood pressure readings can go down when a pet is petted or played with. Having a pet can also help heart attack victims live longer. Since reducing stress levels can help with many mental or physical health conditions, knowing this might tip the odds in favor of getting a pet, if you’re on the fence.

 

2. Pets Give You Someone to Care For

 

Adults or children suffering from social anxiety or loneliness might benefit from pet ownership. Having a dog or cat depending on you (or your child) can give you something to look forward to each day. It gives those with few socialization outlets someone to talk to, even if they can’t talk back in words. Any pet owner will tell you, however, that their pets do communicate with them through loving gazes, wagging tails, purring, and wet kisses.

 

In addition, a sense of responsibility can improve symptoms of depression. If you are feeling that you can’t do anything right, knowing that you have kept your pet alive and healthy is a tangible way to see that you can, in fact, succeed. Your pets are completely dependent on you for their well-being, and it can be gratifying and cathartic to care for them, particularly if you are struggling with feelings of depression. When you know that you can’t simply stay in bed all day because you have a helpless family member relying on you for food, water, interaction, and taking care of their potty needs, this can improve your routine and help you take steps to get out of depression’s grasp.

 

3. Pets Can Help you Get or Stay Physically Healthy

 

 

Are you constantly telling your children to go play outside or your teens to get off of the video games? Getting a pet, particularly a dog, can help you get your kids outside (or at least off of the couch) without nagging. Dogs in particular need time to run around outside, and they will excitedly run to the door and to your child when they deem it playtime. Cats also need attention and can be entertained with cat toys or a feather tied to a string.

 

Getting more physically active can improve a host of mental health issues, including depression and anxiety. It can foster better sleep, too, which also improves mental health. Dogs’ individual needs for exercise vary, so you can look for a pet whose requirements for walks and outdoor play matches yours, your kids’, and your outdoor space or neighborhood.

 

4. Pets Can Help You Socialize

 

When you get a dog, it’s good to get them socialized. No one wants a dog who can’t handle it when visitors come to the house. This generally requires taking the dog out to the dog park, on walks in the neighborhood, and to other places where you will both encounter both people and other dogs. Socializing your dog properly will also help to socialize you, because one thing dog owners like to talk about is other dog owners! If your teenager has trouble making friends or has some social anxiety, teaching the dog to be a good citizen can be his or her job; both your teen and the dog will benefit.

 

Don’t think that having a cat or another type of pet means that they won’t help with socialization! Any pet gives you and other family members something to talk about with others. Your child might enjoy joining a pet-centered group such as a pet club or 4-H, which can introduce him or her to peers and teach real-world skills.

 

You Can Reap These Benefits Without a Pet, Too

 

Of course, some families simply will not want to or be able to get a pet. You might live in a pet-free apartment, or someone in your home might have allergies. The non-allergic members of your household can still benefit from animals. Consider volunteering as a family at a local animal shelter. Your teen might ask about interning at a veterinarian’s office. You might also be able to supervise pet therapy programs, or maybe your older teen would like to start a pet-sitting business. Any or all of these can bring the joy of animals into your life without actually having to commit to spending the next ten or fifteen years caring for a pet of your own.

 

As a parent, you undoubtedly look for ways to enrich your family and boost your loved ones’ physical and mental health. Adopting an animal can be one way to help not only yourself, your spouse, and your children, but also a homeless dog or cat.

 

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