Many people with different kinds of physical and mental challenges have been using service and emotional support animals for a while now. Support animals are being used to help adults with dementia in geriatric care settings, help sick children in children’s hospitals, help people lower anxiety, help people with cancer recovery, help children with autism or other developmental disabilities, and to help veterans with PTSD. Animal therapy has also been shown to be helpful for people in psychiatric care institutions.
Indeed, being around a pet can have many positive effects on our mental healthiness and well being. A study published last year even showed that having a pet can even help with the most serious of mental illness. Participants in this study, all with a diagnosis of either schizophrenia or bipolar disorder were interviewed regarding the often difficult day-to-day experience of living with a serious mental illness.
The findings from this study found that pets contributed significantly to the participant’s feelings of emotional and social support. The pets in the study also helped the people gain a greater sense of control and effectiveness in their lives; which was grounded in their being able to care for a pet. Most interestingly, pets also gave the study participants a sense of security and routine which helped them feel that they could turn to and rely on their pets in times of emotional need.
Some participants from this study said about their pets:
“When I’m feeling really low they are wonderful because they won’t leave my side for two days,” “They just stay with me until I am ready to come out of it.”
“If I didn’t have my pets I think I would be on my own. You know what I mean, so it’s — it’s nice to come home and, you know, listen to the birds singing”. (Brooks, 2016)
But having pets can also help people who don’t have a significant mental illness. Companion animals can help people cope with all of life’s challenges and for many, many people, having a pet can relax us, relieve loneliness, calm us, and often just make us feel all around better and more positive about our life.
Studies have shown that having a pet can improve our mental health by increasing positivity and reducing depression, increasing social connections, increasing our levels of trust for others, increasing our empathy, reducing our feelings of aggression, and reducing anxiety and stress levels. (Beetz, et al, 2012).
In 2010, researcher Allen R. McConnell, and his colleagues at Miami University and Saint Louis University, in a study entitled, Friends With Benefits: On the Positive Consequences of Pet Ownership, examined the benefits of pet ownership for “everyday people”. The researchers found evidence that pet owners managed better in terms of mental well-being than people who didn’t own pets. More specifically, pet owners
often experience greater well-being (e.g., greater self-esteem), exhibit healthier personality characteristics (e.g., more conscientiousness), and show attachment styles that are less negative toward the self (i.e., less fearful, less preoccupied).
The study also found that pets can really help fulfil their owner’s needs for social support and connection. Pets
provide greater social needs fulfillment, were related to better owner well-being (e.g., less depression, less loneliness, greater self-esteem, greater happiness).
So how can caring for and loving our pets help us with supporting our positive mental wellness? There are a really a number of ways, including the following:
Stress and Anxiety Reduction
Your dog or cat loves it when you cuddle, stroke and pet them, but it’s actually quite beneficial to you as well! Petting your fluff-butt has actually been shown to release happy brain chemicals like oxytocin, the hormone related to love and friendship and also related to stress and anxiety relief. Stress causes our blood pressure to rise and also creates an increase of the stress chemical cortisol in our bodies which can actually damage our bodies over the long term.
Petting your dog or cat releases oxytocin, causing your blood pressure and cortisol levels to decrease. From this lowering, you feel a reduction in anxiety/stress and a greater sense of wellness. A study of people with high blood pressure, who then get a pet, showed a significant lowering of systolic and diastolic blood pressure in response to environmental stressors than those who did not get a pet (Friedman, 2007).
In a 2015 study for US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) researcher Anne Gadomski and her colleagues tracked 643 children aged between 4 and 10 over the course of 18 months. The researchers actually found that having a pet in the home was associated with a significantly decreased probability of childhood anxiety, particularly social and separation anxiety.
Mindfulness and Pets
It’s hard for most people to be mindful and live “completely in the moment”. We’re either thinking about the past, worrying about our to-do list or fretting about the future. But when we engage in play and interact with our pets, it helps us take our minds off of any negative worries/stressors and focuses us instead on the adorable fuzz-butt in front of us, forcing us to “be” in the moment.
Our animals love us unconditionally, even if we don’t love ourselves sometimes; they don’t judge or criticize us. They totally live their life non-judgementally, always present and in the moment. When we spend time with our animals it gives us the change to maybe emulate them to some degree and practice being nonjudgmentally in the moment! Pets can be the greatest teachers of mindfulness!
You Don’t Feel Alone
Sometimes we can feel isolated, disconnected and alone, even when we’re around our coworkers, friends and loved ones. Feeling alone and isolated can be one of the triggers that can lead to developing mental health problems like depression.
From the research, there is much evidence that pets may actually help alleviate loneliness. Many college students away from home suffer from feeling alone and isolated or in other words, homesickness. For most this is a minor issue, but for others, homesickness becomes more serious and really affects their mental well being and functioning.
A recent study investigated the usefulness of having AAT, animal-assisted therapy, as a treatment for homesick first-year college students. In the study participants had one 45-minute session on Friday of each week where they interacted with a dog for 45 minutes. The results actually showed that the intervention was successful in significantly decreasing homesickness and even in increasing the student’s overall satisfaction with life (Binfet & Passmore, 2016).
When we spend time with our pets, we feel like we’re really connected to something outside of ourselves, we feel connected to them. This human-pet connection can help make us feel more happy, safe and secure. Perhaps, it’s because they really love us unconditionally that allows us to connect with them in a special way that is really powerful in alleviating our feelings of being alone or isolated?
So in sum, having a pet can really improve our mental wellness and add to our lives in lots of positive and wonderful ways. When your dog gives you that smile and wants to be petted or to play, or your cat cuddles up with you and a good book, you can’t help but smile and feel a connection. When we take our dog for a walk or to the dog park we can’t help but feel an improvement in our mood and mental and physical well being.
If you don’t have a pet of your own? You can still obtain these benefits by making the effort to volunteer at a shelter or animal rescue. There are many animals out there alone who would love your companionship and the act of giving through volunteering also has some really positive benefits for our mental health.
If you or a loved one is interested in exploring mental health treatment, please contact me today. While I’m not fuzzy or fluffy and I don’t have a wagging tail, I would be happy to speak with you about how I may be able to help you.
“If you pick up a starving dog and make him prosperous, he will not bite you. This is the principal difference between a dog and a man”. (Pudd’nhead Wilson, Mark Twain)
Allen R. McConnell, PhD, Miami University; Christina M. Brown, PhD, Saint Louis University; Tonya M. Shoda, MA, Laura E. Stayton, BA, and Colleen E. Martin, BA, Miami University; Friends With Benefits: On the Positive Consequences of Pet Ownership,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 101, No. 6.
Barker S. B., Knisely J. S., McCain N. L., Schubert C. M., Pandurangi A. K. Exploratory study of Stress-Buffering response patterns from interaction with a therapy dog. Anthrozoos. 2010;23(1):79–91. doi: 10.2752/175303710X12627079939341.
Binfet, J.T., & Passmore, H.A. (2016) Hounds and homesickness: The effects of an animal-assisted therapeutic intervention for first-year university students, Anthrozoös, 29(3), 441-454, doi: 10.1080/08927936.2016.118136
Beetz A, Uvnäs-Moberg K, Julius H, Kotrschal K. Psychosocial and Psychophysiological Effects of Human-Animal Interactions: The Possible Role of Oxytocin. Frontiers in Psychology. 2012;3:234. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00234
Friedmann E., Thomas S. A., Cook L. K., Tsai C.-C., Picot S. J. A friendly dog as potential moderator of cardiovascular response to speech in older hypertensives. Anthrozoos. 2007;20(1):51–63. doi: 10.2752/089279307780216605
Gadomski AM, Scribani MB, Krupa N, Jenkins P, Nagykaldi Z, Olson AL. Pet Dogs and Children’s Health: Opportunities for Chronic Disease Prevention? Prev Chronic Dis 2015;12:150204. DOI:
H. Brooks, K. Rushton, S. Walker et al., “Ontological security, and connectivity provided by pets: a study in the self-management of the everyday lives of people diagnosed with long-term mental illness,” BMC Psychiatry, vol. 16, pp. 1–8, 2016