February 17, 2021Blog

Mental Health Benefits of Owning a Pet

Written by Granite Recover Centers
Clinically Reviewed by Cheryl Smith MS,MLADC

Most people can say they have experienced the joy of having a pet, or have been able to share a kinship with one owned by a friend or relative. Animals provide companionship and comfort and have now been known to help humans deal with depression, anxiety, social disorders, and more. It’s no surprise that these benefits would one day be backed by science; after all, humans have been turning to animals for relief for centuries—some research suggests dogs were first kept 12,000 years ago.

In the age of COVID, everyone is adapting to the new and unusual norm that requires little social interaction with others, staying home far more than usual, and isolation. Beyond that, many are struggling with unemployment and unexpected financial worries. Does having a pet help with the difficulties we are facing amid the pandemic? How can they help people with different mental health issues?

Common Disorders that Benefit from Pet Ownership

As mental disorders have become more socially acceptable to talk about, it has become clear just how many people are affected by them. The two most common are depression and anxiety, which can each vary in severity and presenting symptoms. Though every case is different and can largely depend on the person’s history and environment, much progress has been made in terms of treatment. Many have been proven to help those who suffer from these disorders find relief and learn to live happier lives, and one of those is pet ownership.

Depression

As depression is one of the most common disorders, we’ll start here. Symptoms of depression typically include persistent feelings of sadness, loneliness, and hopelessness. Different pets have different qualities and individual personalities, but dogs and cats are found to be especially helpful in these cases.

  • Exercise: Pets that require trips outdoors and enjoy exercise, such as running or walking, playing games, swimming, etc., can help establish and maintain a healthy routine for the owner as well as the pet. This can also encourage an owner to spend more time outside where they have better exposure to sunlight/Vitamin D, which can regulate mood. Older pets or pets that are simply calmer by nature can be influential over a person’s depression by cuddling or snuggling, sleeping next to them, or just being next to the person. It also provides motivation to get up and out of bed, and having a responsibility can give the day more purpose. In terms of dogs specifically, they are known to love their owners loyally and unconditionally, so having that extra dose of affection can bring up a person’s mood, too.
  • Companionship: The relationship between a pet and owner exists largely in their simple presence, being around their owners and in their home with them. For example, cats do not need to be walked or groomed in quite the same way as a dog and are a bit more independent by nature (please note: there are exceptions, just like with every animal!). Because they require less attention, they might be better suited for people who are high-risk for COVID and must remain indoors as much as possible. They can also help greatly with depression. Simply brushing your pet cat if you are feeling sad and hearing them purr can cause your body to produce stress-reducing hormones, which will decrease your blood pressure and heart rate. Random fact: a cat’s purr is within the range of 20-140 Hz, and is known to be medically therapeutic for humans suffering from an illness.

Other pets, such as reptiles, rabbits, fish, birds, and rodents can offer the same relief from depression for their owners. While you can’t walk a bird or iguana, it can still provide the same enjoyment and playfulness that a cat or dog can. Companionship is the underlying strength in owning any pet if you are combatting depression, and simply having their presence around you can help immensely.

Anxiety

Everyone experiences anxiety to a certain degree, but those who experience it persistently or disproportionately likely suffer from an anxiety disorder. Symptoms may include fearfulness, excessive worrying, nervousness, feelings of doom, and apprehension. It can be incredibly debilitating if it is gone untreated, it can lead to panic attacks that render a person unable to leave their home.

Pet owners who have an anxiety disorder will find that owning a pet can alleviate their symptoms by:

  • Lowering blood pressure in stressful situations
  • Engaging in play with your pet can increase serotonin/dopamine levels that can calm and relax
  • Brushing/petting/cuddling a pet can be very soothing if a person is experiencing a bout of anxiety or a panic attack
  • Pets with high energy can help a person exercise more
  • Being needed by a pet can make a person feel calmer and more purposeful in their daily life
  • Watching fish in an aquarium (or a fishbowl, depending on your preference and size limitations!) can be very calming, resulting in reduced muscle tension and lower pulse rate
  • Pets can bring humor to daily situations, provoking laughter or a smile (both known to reduce stress!)

Pets can help exponentially with anxiety and its related stresses, leading people to feel more at ease in their daily life and Even inspiring feelings of joy. There’s a reason people love watching funny animal videos. It’s entertaining, endearing, and can bring a little laughter to our day.

Loneliness

Loneliness is one of the obstacles we are all faced with because of COVID-19 this year. Because the nature of the disease is spread from person-to-person, our ability to socialize has been reduced to a minimum. This loneliness can lead to feelings of depression, even if you are treating it in ways that worked for you pre-COVID.

Talking to your pets and spending time with them can be a good way to combat the feelings of loneliness, even if you feel silly at first. Taking a dog outside to play fetch or teaching them a new trick can help you feel less alone. It’s also a good way to chat with other people while still social distancing; if you run into someone at the dog park, you can strike up a conversation about your furry friends and make some new connections.

At the end of the day, your pet being excited to see you (whether you’re just coming home from a day at work or giving them dinner) is a great feeling and can certainly make someone feel less lonely. They can also give a person a sense of security in knowing they aren’t alone—sometimes they even double as a doorbell or bodyguard!

PTSD

Service dogs that are specifically trained (and even ones that may not be) can help service members and veterans who are suffering from PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). In the same way, they can help people suffering from depression or anxiety, they can help veterans develop a daily routine. If they have an active pet, such as a dog, they will need to incorporate exercise and playtime, which can result in the same benefits for their owner.

Research into service dogs assisting those with PTSD has found that ownership results in lower depression, improved quality of life, and better social functioning at work and in social situations.

Pets & Seniors

Older adults who may find themselves living alone can also benefit from the companionship of a pet. The loneliness they might experience, especially during COVID, can be lessened with a pet to look after. It can also help them maintain a routine for the day, to get exercise if they require walks, and to have company in their home with them. It can also add joy and excitement to their day that might be otherwise quiet and without much activity.

It has also been shown that it can buffer the effects of stressful events, such as bouts of anxiety for seniors who have dementia or Alzheimer’s. Simply the presence of the pet can put them more at ease, boost their immune system and energy levels, and enhance their vitality overall.

Pets & Children

Pets can teach children responsibility and companionship, much like it can for adults. They can also be a playmate for a child and contribute to their imagination. For children who are diagnosed with specific disorders, such as ADHD, ownership can inspire responsibility and purpose, but it also provides a way to release excess energy or nervousness.

It can also assist children with:

  • Separation anxiety: If a child’s parents work a lot or are away often, their separation anxiety can be eased with a pet.
  • Making them feel loved/secure: Pets often display unconditional love to their owners, and can help the child’s self-esteem and feeling of identity simply by the excitement they display when the child or spending time with them. Dogs are specifically protective of their owners, so if a child has heightened anxiety they can feel safer knowing they are with them.
  • Teaching empathy: Pets don’t judge! For this reason, their relationship with a child can encourage them to use their imagination to play and talk to their pet, which can help improve their vocabulary and cognitive skills.
  • The importance of routine: If a child is having difficulty keeping up with a routine, having a pet will help them to be more regimented. If the pet needs to be walked in the morning, they will be up early to tend to the responsibility. For bathing and eating, they can also learn to help out and see that it contributes to their pet growing and becoming strong through healthy decisions. They may feel inclined to mirror their pet’s routine for themselves, which will give them structure and self-discipline.
  • Exercise: As being active is a large part of development for children, having a pet to run around with can help with physical health, and getting them to play outside. Burning energy off rather than playing on an iPad or watching TV can help the child’s ability to concentrate, increasing their focus and attention to schoolwork and reading.

Having a pet gives a child a responsible role, and will also foster compassion and empathy without fear of judgment or rejection. This is especially important for children who have social or learning disabilities, as it can improve their self-confidence and identity development, too.

Pets During COVID

All in all, owning a pet can be a great experience for a person who has the time and means to do so. Pets can provide comfort in many different ways—from calming and relaxing energy to enthusiasm and encouragement—to those of us who need a little inspiration. While new pets can come with learning curves or adjustments to your daily life (note: puppies love to chew on new shoes), they are a way for us to open our hearts and minds to some joy we might not experience otherwise.

If you are struggling with the isolation and mental obstacles that have come with the pandemic, a pet might be a great addition to your life. Adopting may change your life in ways you could not imagine and, if you suffer from a mental health disorder, they might help you to overcome some of the debilitating symptoms that come with it.