The value of pet ownership for mental health is something that we sometimes think about in the abstract. However, many mental health studies point to more than just one or two reasons having a pet can be beneficial for both you and your family.
Animals help to calm us and result in healthier mental functions. These benefits are mainly present when our pets are present, but they can also carry over into our daily lives.
Mental health benefits of pet ownership
Reduces stress and anxiety
Interaction with pets helps reduce anxiety and stress. It helps balance cortisol and oxytocin levels in pet owners. Cortisol is our primary stress hormone. Our pets can decrease our cortisol levels, which help improve problems with anxiety, depression, sleep, memory, and concentration. Increased oxytocin lowers stress and anxiety and helps with positive communication with others.
Petting animals can calm and relax us while soothing and relaxing our pets. Petting animals lowers blood pressure even more than engaging in human conversation. Studies have also shown increases in dopamine after stroking a dog just for 5 minutes. Dopamine helps give us a sense of pleasure and well-being.
Dogs are known as man’s best friend, but it’s not just dogs and cats that provide companionship. Many animals exhibit excitement when their owners come home for the day. You can talk to your pet, and some birds will even talk back. Even if you don’t pet your fish, they’re a calming presence in your life.
One study shows that women who live alone with pets experience less depression. Strangely enough, pet ownership seems to have the opposite effect on men who live alone, causing them more depression. One theory is that those who become more attached to their pet become more depressed.
For those who live alone, especially those who have lost someone through death, divorce, or other reasons, pet ownership can help decrease loneliness.
Provides structure and routine
Having structure and routine in our lives helps us have less stress. It gives us a sense of normalcy, controllability, and predictability in our world.
Helps us look forward to the future
Anticipation can play a significant role in our mental health. We tend to feel more intense emotions related to the future than the past. The enjoyment we get from anticipating our future can significantly improve our feeling of well-being.
Having pets helps us look forward to the future. You might anticipate your next hike. Or you might contemplate going to the store and finding the perfect treat or toy your pet will love. If you keep fish and have a big tank, you might even think about what plant or animal you’ll add to your tank next.
Gets us outside
Having a pet like a dog, horse, or even a tortoise or rabbit can help get us outside more. Scientists have found that increased sunlight and Vitamin D helps decrease depression.
All types of exercise can improve our mental health. Pets can help urge us toward more exercise-based hobbies like horseback riding, running, walking, and hiking. But even throwing a ball in the backyard or the exercise you get from cleaning a pet’s living quarters can add to your activity level.
Eliminating social isolation can help combat mental health issues. Meeting our neighbours and other people engaging in similar outdoor activities can be a bonus to spending time with a pet outdoors.
Children, adolescents, and pet ownership
It’s not just adults that can benefit from owning a pet. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry says that pet ownership helps children’s mental health in various ways.
Children with pets have less childhood anxiety and stress. Owning any type of pet increases children’s emotional and social health. Pets provide comfort contact. Pets also help provide emotional needs such as love, loyalty, and affection.
Children can talk to pets and tell them their secrets. Children who have no siblings specifically increase their prosocial behaviour when they have a pet.
A pet can help children overcome loneliness. Research indicates that social isolation and loneliness affect children and adolescents more than adults and result in high depression and anxiety rates. Preventing loneliness during long periods of childhood can help prevent depression and anxiety in later years.
Pet ownership also causes a trickledown effect. Pet ownership reduces stress in adult caregivers, which helps provide children with a less stressful living environment.
Pet ownership for long-term mental health issues
Pet ownership can help people who have clinically-diagnosed long-term mental health issues. Pet ownership allows people with long-term mental illnesses to manage their emotions and become distracted from their mental health symptoms.
Pets can also provide ontological security for people diagnosed with long-term mental health issues. Ontological security is created from that which brings meaning to their lives and gives them more of a sense of stability and continuity. Thus, pet ownership can help considerably with depression.
There are currently an estimated 50,000 therapy dogs at work in the US. They help their owners conquer everything from post-traumatic stress syndrome, social anxiety, and dementia. Animal-assisted therapy produces real results in their owners.
How non-traditional pets affect mental health
Most people think of dogs and cats when they think of getting a pet to help with their mental health. However, other pets have benefits as well.
Birds, especially ones that can talk, can be socially interactive. Many birds, such as African grey parrots, live for as long as humans, so you don’t have to worry about becoming attached to them only to have them die in a few years.
Fish are calming to watch. They help relieve stress and lower blood pressure. Plus, if you have a large tank, you can look forward to adding new fish, tank companions, and plants over time.
Rabbits and rodents
Rabbits and rodents like gerbils, guinea pigs, mice, and rats take up far less space than dogs and cats. They can help reduce stress levels and lower blood pressure through as comforting benefits of petting them.
Snakes and lizards
If you’re allergic to furry and feathery pets, snakes and lizards can be great options. They are still a creature that needs your attention and can grow as attached to you as you do to them.
Owning a pet is a big responsibility. Luckily, pet ownership comes with many added mental health benefits.
Anyone can benefit from pet ownership. However, having a pet can be especially helpful for people living alone, children, and people with long-term mental health issues.
Having a pet and enjoying activities with them can help reduce stress, anxiety, and depression. They can help to calm and relax us, provide companionship, and decrease our loneliness. They provide structure and routine in our lives and give us things to look forward to in the future. Our time outside with pets can also improve our physical and mental health and help our social lives.
Dennis Relojo-Howell is the managing director of Psychreg.