‘The pet effect:’ a pet’s influence on mental health
In an interview with Well+Good, Karen Sullivan, PhD, ABBP, a board-certified neuropsychologist and the founder of I Care For Your Brain, confirms the positive link between pets and mental health. She calls it the “pet effect.” Having a pet can increase a person’s self-esteem and mood, says Dr. Sullivan, adding that they can also combat loneliness, thanks to the companionship and unconditional love that they provide their humans. And if you’ve ever wondered if dogs can help with anxiety or stress, or if you prefer the company of felines, cats can help with depression, Dr. Sullivan says that animals can be a salve for many pains.
Dr. Sullivan is in good company when she says that a pet’s influence on mental health is positive. According to Julie Osborn, PsyD, LCSW, a doctor of psychology and licensed clinical social worker and founder of the podcast MyCBT, there are plenty of benefits of owning a pet, including among those who are diagnosed with certain mental illnesses. “A lot of people with mental health, say with anxiety, social anxiety, or with depression, it’s all about others,” says Dr. Osborn. “We’re comparing ourselves to other people and always worrying about what people are thinking about us. We don’t have that with our pets.”
6 benefits of pets on mental health
1. Pets help reduce anxiety and stress
When asked whether pets help reduce anxiety and stress, Dr. Sullivan refers to one study that centers around how dogs help humans manage anxiety and stress. According to Dr. Sullivan, the researchers posit that interacting with our canine companions could increase oxytocin levels, a hormone that is traditionally associated with physical intimacy among humans. Dr. Sullivan says that, in turn, increased levels of oxytocin could positively impact mental health by decreasing stress hormones and activating the parasympathetic system, which signals the body to relax after a stressful event.
2. Pets can provide companionship and combat loneliness
Pets aren’t just animals, they are also companions for the people who love them—and as companions, you can share experiences with your pet as you would with a family member or friend. “The benefits of companionship come from mutually experienced happiness, engaging in recreation activities side-by-side, shared relaxation, and joyful and spontaneous interactions,” says Dr. Sullivan, adding that, “these are all easy to have with a pet.”
While pets are wonderful companions unto themselves, Dr. Sullivan says that they are also instrumental in encouraging human connection. Walking around the neighborhood with your dog, for instance, or joining a social media group related to your specific type of pet can provide social opportunities that may have otherwise been unavailable to you. What’s more, pets can serve as an icebreaker—which is ideal if you’re often anxious in social situations, according to Dr. Osborn, who adds that having a common interest (in this instance, pets) can make connecting with others easier. All of which, as a result, can help to combat loneliness.
3. Pets provide emotional support
If you’ve ever held a puppy in your arms, or let a cat sleep on your lap, you might recall it as a moment of pure joy. Indeed, pets can uplift the spirits and contribute to an overall positive mood. Pets can also provide emotional support to individuals who have been diagnosed with a mental health illness, according to Dr. Sullivan, including post-traumatic stress disorder, dementia, and social anxiety. In fact, many hospitals and elderly homes have incorporated animal therapy into their programs which allow patients to reap the rewards that come with interacting with an animal.
4. Pets can encourage healthy psychological development in children and adolescents
Having a pet can also offer psychological benefits for both children and adolescents. With children, The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) indicates that pets can teach kids about empathy and compassion, among other things. According to Dr. Sullivan, pets also teach children responsibility—and instilling a sense of responsibility in children has been linked to an increased self-esteem and self-confidence. While small, one study conducted in 2020 also mentioned that pets can help provide social and emotional support to young adults undergoing the years of adolescence, which can often be a period fraught with loneliness, stress, and anxiety.
5. Pets can increase physical activity, which can also impact mental health
Pets that require intense bouts of physical activity can unquestionably bring more movement into your days. According to a study published in 2017, dogs can potentially increase physical activity among their owners. Although the study was small, it showed that dog owners walked more than non-dog owners, clocking in about 22 minutes of moderate physical activity per day. Another study conducted in 2020 also reports similar results, and dog owners who participated in the study reported 18 more minutes of walking per week than non-dog owners.
While more research is needed on how an increased level of physical activity among pet owners can lead to mental health benefits, there are studies that support that movement can positively impact your overall well-being. Physical activity can release endorphins, a brain chemical that can promote energy and contribute to a positive mood—and it needn’t be strenuous either. Just walking can boost mental health, according to a large study published in the journal The Lancet Psychiatry.
6. Pets can help humans feel loved
Dr. Osborn says that unconditional love is another benefit of owning a pet, which can likewise have a profound impact on mental health. “It is the one relationship in your life that you don’t have to worry about,” says Dr. Osborn, adding that, warts and all, “our pets accept us for who we are.” Dr. Sullivan adds that the love pets offer their owners ties into a fundamental human need, which is “to be loved, feel valued, and experience companionship, and for some, this is felt more deeply with a pet.”
Can certain pets influence mental health more than others?
While most research centers around the psychological impact that dogs can have on pet owners, Dr. Sullivan argues that any animal (furred, finned, or feathered) in your care can positively impact your mental health. For one, cat owners have and share more positive emotions with their feline, and people who are the proud owners of other animals, like reptiles, birds, or fish can also obtain mental health benefits. “Watching fish swim in an aquarium has been shown to have meditative and calming effects, snuggling a guinea pig makes children with autism smile more, and caressing a pet boa constrictor reduces blood pressure and stress levels” says Dr. Sullivan. In other words, “whatever animal you love will be a fit for you.”
What if you can’t own a pet?
When it comes to having a pet, however, it’s important to keep in mind that it will come with a commitment. As Dr. Osborn says, “If you want a pet, you have to take care of that pet.” Additionally, “plenty of people who love animals and would love to have a pet can’t. Some people don’t have the physical health to maintain a pet, to walk everyday, or bend down to change a litter box. Some people can’t afford the expenses that come along with being a pet owner,” says Dr. Sullivan.
If you aren’t ready to own a pet or have a health condition (like allergies or asthma) that won’t allow you to live with animals, it’s possible to enjoy the benefits of interacting with pets without owning one. “You can visit someone else’s pet, a cat cafe, local park, or animal shelter,” says Dr. Sullivan. “Some people that volunteer at animal shelters or an animal sanctuary once a week, once a month, or whatever, can take care of animals, and in turn, receive love,” adds Dr. Osborn.
While a pet’s influence on mental health is without question, your animals aren’t a panacea. While it’s okay to seek the love that a pet can offer you, they also require love and care in return.
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