If you have a dog, a cat, or any other furry (or scaly or feathery!) animal in your life, you know first-hand the way that they provide unparalleled companionship. As I write this, my dog is resting his head on me and my cat is only two feet away. There is a special kind of closeness there. We always joke that with our pets, there is no such thing as a personal bubble.
Millions of American households own at least one pet, and for many people, they help to alleviate symptoms of stress, anxiety, and depression. These improvements, along with physical health benefits related to our pets, have been dubbed The Pet Effect.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month. To honor this month and help garner discussion around the topic, let’s take a look at some of the ways our four-legged friends can help us when we are feeling down:
Pets Ease Loneliness
Surveys show that 75% of people notice an improvement in their mental health or their loved ones’ mental health from having a pet. Pets offer companionship and unconditional love, even when it seems like no one else will.
Loneliness and isolation can trigger symptoms of depression. Having a companion, even one in animal form, can greatly decrease these feelings and improve mental health. The company of a pet has been shown to help teenagers feel less rejected by their peers, and to help elderly people remain healthier and have stronger cognitive functions. People of all ages benefit from having a friend in their lives.
Having a pet also facilitates many opportunities for socializing with other pet owners. People that love their pets often take up interests and hobbies that involve their animals. You can try taking your dog to a meet up for hikers, or taking your puppy to the park to play with other dogs. These are just a couple of the activities centered around our pets that encourage meeting new people.
They Make Us Feel Needed
When you are feeling depressed, it often takes the form of self doubt. You may feel like no one cares about you. Research has shown that caring for someone else can greatly negate these feelings.
When you have a pet, you are responsible for taking care of them. They rely on you, because they can’t do it on their own. This fosters a sense of responsibility and meaning, and can increase our sense of self worth.
A study from 2016 showed that people can feel these effects even if the pets don’t require much care. Elderly people were tasked with caring for 5 crickets in a cage for 8 weeks, and just the act of feeding them was shown to boost their moods. The simple act of caring for others, even those that don’t require much interaction, helps to give us a sense of purpose and belonging.
Pets Help Create Routine
Pets encourage regular schedules for feeding, exercising, and cleaning. When you are feeling depressed, taking care of your pet can be a motivating reason to get out of bed in the morning. Having a set routine can also help to calm feelings of anxiety.
Having a dog also encourages healthy habits and physical movement. They require walks or even more vigorous forms of exercise. Studies show that dog owners are far more likely than average to meet daily guidelines for physical activity. Being active and getting more exercise can help to combat many symptoms of anxiety and depression by releasing endorphins.
They Reduce Stress
The love and affection of an animal produces a calming effect. Sensory relief (the reduction of stress from touch and movement) when petting an animal can lower blood pressure and cortisol levels, while playing with them releases serotonin and dopamine into our brain. On top of that, the unconditional love that we perceive from our pets has been shown to release oxytocin.
Have you ever been sad or crying, only to have your pet get close to you and seemingly try to comfort you? They seem to understand our anxiety and pain, and that can go a long way towards helping us to feel better.
Owning a Pet is a Big Commitment
It is important to note that while pets can be a great help and a motivating force for those who have them, they are not the best choice for everyone. They take money, energy, and a lot of time. If you are worried or feel you are not ready for the responsibility of pet ownership, that is completely understandable! Please don’t rush into the commitment of a new pet if you are anything less than 100% sure, or both you and the animal could suffer.
The good news is, you can gain many of the social and stress relieving benefits without having a pet yourself. You can cuddle with a friend’s cat or play with a neighbor’s dog. Local shelters always need volunteers to assist with adoptions or to take the dogs on walks. Volunteering has the added bonus of feeling like you are making a difference.
When it comes down to it, we have a lot to gain from loving animals. How have your pets helped you? Have you noticed any benefits from exercising, caring for them, or being loved loved in return?
May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Stay tuned for more posts on the topics of affordable mental health care, tools to manage symptoms, and thought problems to address. Remember, you are not alone, and we are all in this together. Speaking about it is the first step to getting better. If you or a loved one needs urgent help, please consider reaching out:
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline – 1-800-273-8255
SAMHSA Treatment Referral Helpline – 1-877-726-4727